The Trials of Muhammad Ali begins with a clip of Ali as a guest on The Eamonn Andrews Show in 1968. While the British host politely introduces Ali by his proper name (something many in the states refuse to do), his American co-host David Susskind makes no qualms about publicly denouncing Ali as a disgrace to his nation, his race, and what he described as his profession; not a champion boxer, but a minister in The Nation of Islam. Ali looks visibility hurt by the remarks, but interestingly, it will be the last time we see him looking defeated. It’s a blunt opening to what develops into a chronological account of the rise, fall, and resurrection of this iconic figure in American history.
Like so many titans of American history, my knowledge of Muhammad Ali is influenced heavily by the iconic status that he has achieved in recent decades, where flaws are overlooked in light of inspirational acts. Through the use of archival footage and interviews with influential people in Ali’s life including a former financial backer of his boxing career, as well as members active in The Nation of Islam both during the time of Muhammad’s conversion and after, director Bill Siegel paints a picture of a man swept up in a political movement that ultimately confronted him with decisions that would change the course of his life.
The film begins with Ali’s rise to superstardom as an Olympic gold medalist, and soon, the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Footage of a brash, loud-mouthed, and confident man soon segues into a man similarly opinionated and defiant but for a cause greater than his own fame, although ironically, it is his fame that allowed him such notoriety in the organization itself. The film then dives into his relationships with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, as well as Martin Luther King. The film is objective in its view of The Nation of Islam and its often contradictory attitudes during the volatile Civil Rights and Vietnam War era. The film concludes with Ali’s legal troubles when he refuses military service, and his subsequent return to the ring after being banished from the sport.
What really stands out in this film is the use of archive footage. It’s impressive what we could get away with on national television in the 1960s and 70s and really, how much more truth is revealed on a talk show back then as compared to today. The issues are there for all to see, much of the discussion is filmed, and people on opposing sides are arguing it out. It wasn’t always dignified or fair, but it was real, and I found my attention captured during these segments.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a taut, well-paced historical documentary that falls just short of being a life story, and instead opts for the meatier discussion points of Ali’s career as a boxer and minister. The end falters a little when it abandons this roadmap and uses Ali’s daughter Tatiana to give an unnecessary, albeit brief, rundown of his four marriages, two affairs, and his seven children. We are left with the image of the Muhammad most young people are familiar with, the frail but still sharp man lighting the Olympic torch in 1996. It’s an easy image to win back the audience’s affections, but I find the flawed man to be the more interesting study.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali opens today at the Ritz Bourse.