The Trials of Muhammad Ali


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Where it finds strength is in its exploration of Ali as a man and as a symbol."

In his time, he was the most famous man in the world. These days, when his health difficulties permit him a rare public appearance, he's still a sensation. Though he made his name as a boxer, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, Muhammad Ali was always possessed of a charisma that would get him noticed, and he didn't need to be in the ring to get attention. These days, though, certain parts of his history tend to be overlooked. Bill Siegel's documentary explores the issues that made an all-American hero into a political liability for the establishment.

Siegel makes extensive use of archive footage, much of it low quality, which sometimes makes it seem as if we're looking further back in history than we are. In a way, this is appropriate, given the massive cultural change the US has undergone in the intervening decades (though it is carefully pointed out that some of the racist discrimination seen here is still very much in the present). Interview footage, especially with Ali's second wife, Kalilah, makes the link between past and present, and Siegel has assembled an impressive line-up of contributors, from Salim Muwakkil to Louis Farrakhan. From the archives, the voice of sometime Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad resonates loudly.

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The focus of Siegel's documentary is twofold: he looks at the closely interwoven racial and religious issues that shaped Ali's life choices, and he looks at the boxer's decision to refuse to serve in Vietnam, a choice that may have had its origins in religious principle but also stemmed from Ali's determination not to be treated as property by a state that had given him little in return. The simple statement "I ain't got nothin' against no Viet Cong," coming from the then Heavyweight Champion of the World, was quite a blow for the US propaganda machine. it was heard because of Ali's fame; consequently, the government was determined to make a famous example of him, ruining his career and doing its utmost to send him to prison.

This is not a film that will have particular appeal to fans of Ali's boxing. Very little fight footage is shown and there are places where it would be nice to see more, to better elucidate the wider narrative - these may be famous fights but any younger people drawn to the film will not have seen them. Where it finds strength is in its exploration of Ali as a man and as a symbol. Politically naive, he was often told that he was being used, and this is an interesting portrait of a poorly educated but intelligent man asserting his right to determine his own values, a parallel to the struggles, in that period, for access to good education, in which many activists were inevitably people who had had to educate themselves.

Despite this scrutiny, Ali remains something of a mystery throughout the film. We see relatively few of his impassioned outbursts, though there are a few talk show gems and Siegel is not afraid to show us his mean streak, the baiting that caused several great boxers to lose their cool and thereby their titles. One point the film keeps returning to is his struggle to assert his own name, and although this is given little wider context, it's easy to observe how closely the right to change one's name is bound up with social privilege. It's one of the few issues on which we see him looking emotionally vulnerable.

Alongside this, Siegel depicts the political struggles going on at the time, many of them centered on the efforts of black Americans to take control of their own identities. Some of it may make less radical viewers uncomfortable but Siegel effectively illustrates how the more challenging political positions developed and shows us something of the impact they had. As Ali eventually showed in his comeback fights, fancy footwork can achieve a lot but sometimes what's needed is a punch.

This film doesn't quite have the punch it needs but it certainly wins on points.

Reviewed on: 24 Nov 2013
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The Trials of Muhammad Ali packshot
A documentary about the boxer's politics, his religious beliefs and his refusal to serve in Vietnam.

Director: Bill Siegel

Starring: Muhammad Ali, Khalilah Ali, John Carlos, Louis Farrakhan, Salim Muwakkil, Robert Lipsyte

Year: 2013

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2013

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