The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Bill Siegel’s fascinating documentary about the legendary boxer, cares less about how he handled himself in the ring than how he handled himself in life. Specifically, Siegel is interested in the period beginning when he renounced his given name of Cassius Clay, joined the Nation of Islam, refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army, faced a five-year prison sentence and wasn’t allowed to fight professionally for a few years.
Siegel begins with an appearance on TV in the late ’60s, in which host David Susskind rips into Ali for being unpatriotic and bookends the movie with “The Greatest” being applauded while lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympics. In between, he not only chronicles Ali’s life in the spotlight but also the public’s shifting perceptions of what Ali stood for. Hostility to some of his stances, especially those regarding the Vietnam War, evolved into acceptance, if not outright support.
Ali’s story is told through a library’s worth of archival footage and the voices of those who knew him — his brother, one of his ex-wives, one of his daughters, several Nation of Islam contemporaries. It’s a side of Ali not often seen — to make ends meet because he couldn’t get paid to fight, Ali went on a speaking tour, something that surprisingly he wasn’t very good at in the beginning.
For those who just want to revel in Ali’s athletic abilities, there are better movies about the man out there, the 1996 doc When We Were Kings among them. Also, HBO’s upcoming movie dramatization of Trials’ same time period, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, no doubt will deal with many of the issues that this doc wrestles with. But for those who want to get a glimpse into his life outside the ring right now, The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a knockout.
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