By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist August 22, 2013 at 10:01AM
"In the '60s and '70s, he was the most recognizable face in the world. We created a symbol. Muhammad Ali has long since been supplanted by what we believe he is. There's so many ways of looking at him that have only to do with us, and have nothing to do with him," New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte sagely observes in "The Trials Of Muhammad Ali." Far more than a boxer, Olympian, Muslim and father, it wouldn't be a stretch to call him the eighth wonder of the world, a distinction that his daughter Hana Ali half-jokingly admits would love to see bestowed on him. There have been countless films and documentaries about the man who was born Cassius Clay, but Bill Siegel's "The Trials Of Muhammad Ali" is a wholly illuminating look at Muhammad Ali in all his complexity, providing a surprisingly fresh and vivid portrait of a man who played rope-a-dope with history, religion and sport and emerged from the ring as an inspiring, and flawed icon.
As the title of the movie suggests, for those of you looking for a round-by-round account of Ali's achievements with the boxing gloves on, it would be best to look elsewhere. 'Trials' is meant both literally and figuratively, with movie certainly delving into his legal battles—in particular his battle to avoid the Vietnam War draft by claiming conscientious objector status—and emotional, personal hurdles as well. But before any of that takes place, the first thing that immediately strikes you in watching this documentary is the powerful reminder of just how dynamic, handsome and charming Ali was. Siegel utilizes a plethora of archival footage, but never as a crutch for the narrative, and the early vintage sequences of a motor-mouthed, confident and arrogant Ali are still electric decades later. It becomes instantly apparent of the magnetism he contained, and also how it could (and did) rub people the wrong way.
While the movie tackles a variety of topics, it's primarily split into two major subjects: Ali's conversation to Islam, and his fight against enlistment. In terms of the former, the rather compelling point that's underlined in Siegel's film is that while Ali may have been an inspiration of many, he sought his own figures to look to up to. And in the Nation Of Islam, he found the strength he was looking for that went beyond his own physical power. It was in that organization that he saw proud, well-dressed, organized and dedicated black men and women striving to make a real difference. That being said, Ali was no intellectual—he spent his formative teen years training to be the champion he would become—and thus he was a sponge for the best and worst ideas that came forth from the Nation. Most crucially, he never wasted a moment to declare his hatred for whites, while in private, his management team was primarily elderly white men from Louisville. For better or worse, there was no such thing as nuance or shades of grey for Ali, and this would be flare up much more prominently when the notice came for him to report to duty.
Though the court battles Ali faced in avoiding the draft are well documented, it's often forgotten that the case dragged on for over three years. Moreover, he found his license to box revoked nationally and in almost every state as well, immediately cutting off his main source of income (and obviously, he couldn't yet go abroad because of his legal issues). So what does Ali do? He refashions himself into a public speaker, going on a tour that at first found him strident and awkward, essentially giving Nation Of Islam stump speeches. But once he got comfortable with speaking in public, these dates morphed into more freeform exchanges and Q&A sessions, and he would continue to make clear his misgivings about the white race, institutional racism and even his stand against integration. And yet at the same time, whites made up a decent sized portion of this audience, and he figured prominently both on magazines and on television. (And that's not to mention brief stints in the movies and off Broadway, with footage of him decked out and singing in a musical truly something to behold). And it's herein where "The Trials Of Muhammad Ali" achieves something more than just being a nuts and bolts documentary; it presents Ali as naive, brash, too easily reflexive, but also earnest, and truly thoughtful.
"The Trials Of Muhammad Ali" assumes the man's greatness from the first moment, but this isn't simply a foregone conclusion, but a challenge. Bill Siegel wants to show you and prove to you why Ali was great, beyond his many, many accomplishments in the ring. As Lipsyte notes, Ali could be "mean" (his flippant insult to Joe Frazier, calling him an Uncle Tom, is still nauseating to hear), but he was also fearless, courageous and passionate. With extensive input from everyone ranging from his brother Rahaman, Louis Farrakhan, his ex-wife Khalilah Camacho-Ali and more, there are no shortage of advocates for Ali, ready to sing his praises and point out how crucial and important his role was within the black community. But Siegel's documentary could have been just as effective without them. The Ali of this documentary entered the ring a phenom first, but came-of-age outside of it and grew into a man, second. And that process was nothing short of both an evolution and revolution—one taking place in the very public eye—but that Ali could figuratively roll with punches, be open to change and yet retain the core essence of who he was, makes him more of a hero than anyone wearing a cape. [A]