What, another movie about Muhammad Ali? There are so many. The Will Smith biopic Ali, the documentary on the Foreman fight in Zaire When We Were Kings, the other documentary Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World, even this month's HBO release Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight directed by Stephen Frears. But what Bill Siegel has done in The Trials of Muhammad Ali is something unique and, yes, worth getting out to see.
The key is that Siegel has dug in to the central point, the elephant in the room that is so often set to the side in Muhammad Ali stories. And that is his political and religious commitment, his resistance to the draft that so shook up the establishment. Yes, he was an incredible boxer -- someone who used his speed and strategy to outfight much bigger and stronger opponents. Yes, he was a delightful media figure -- a young man who freestyled poetry and boasted extravagantly while he mugged for the cameras. But the reason he was transcendent, the reason he is remembered, is that he stood for his principles and simply refused to go fight in the "white man's war."
Ali reflected the view that was articulated by Stokely Carmichael, that "no Vietnamese ever called me nigger" and added, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Congs." He had been recruited to the Nation of Islam by Malcolm X as his career was rising and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. For years, mainstream sportscasters continued to call him Clay, refusing to accept his choice of name. But the real rub came when he said in 1966 that he would not accept the draft. This was at the height of his career, when he was the heavyweight champion. Many, including prominent Black athletes and friends, urged him to take the "Joe Louis" route, putting on a uniform but never being sent to combat, instead entertaining the troops with exhibition matches. Ali refused.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali captures this confrontation in detail. We are reminded that this was early, well before the country had turned decisively against the war. He relied not on the popularity of his position but on his own principles, political and religious. We see his determination and brilliance as the pressure is put on and ramped up. In April of 1967 came the decisive moment for the freedom movement in the African American community. That was the month Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech denouncing the war at Riverside Church in New York and also the month that Muhammad Ali refused to step forward, after being ordered to three times, for induction into the U.S. Army.
Not only does Siegel capture Ali's state of mind then and his reflections now, but he captures an astounding range of interviews with principle participants and brilliant raconteurs. This includes his wife Khalilah Ali as well as his brother Rahman. One of the most intriguing interviews is with Abdul Rahman Muhammad (also known as Captain Sam) who is a master storyteller and the bearer of a treasure trove of inside information on Ali's life and struggles. Captain Sam, it was clear, would be a worthy subject of his own documentary.
I can't state too emphatically what a joy it is to watch documentary film well constructed. The art of what he has done, taking a massive amount of material he has accumulated over 10 years of working on this project, honing a suspenseful and revelatory narrative that is gripping in its own right and illuminating for today's challenges, is simply a pleasure to watch.
It is so easy to look back on history with a gauzy generalized feeling that things were inevitable. Of course the war was a terrible thing; of course people opposed it; we all know Ali refused induction and ultimately was cleared by the U.S. Supreme Court. But Siegel reminds us of the fights, the risks, the determination that characterized each step of the way. And Muhammad Ali went way out on a limb to take the stand he did. There is no question that his example, his courage, pushed forward disgust with this war that was to kill 58,000 American youth and over three million Vietnamese. Like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali connected the struggles of Black people at home with the international anti-colonial movements. And for this the U.S. stripped him of his title.
The story of his return and triumph is something to treasure. The footage of President Bush giving Ali the medal of freedom is so dissonant and ironic; we can only be thankful that the president had a weak grasp of history, otherwise he would never have done it.
Though the current film Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight also deals with Ali's draft resistance, it is essentially a Supreme Court drama and the actors are mostly white. For an understanding of the real story, with Ali in the center of it, please catch Bill Siegel's new documentary.