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The Trials of Muhammad Ali

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Greatness is not easy. Greatness is tested and greatness must persevere. In this case we are talking about the “greatest of all time,” Muhammad Ali. With The Trials of Muhammad, documentary film maker Bill Siegel delivers a heavyweight look into the literal and figurative trials that helped define Ali’s life and career.

Siegel eases us into the story by showing us 18 year old Cassius Marcellus Clay winning the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. Through clips of interviews with Clay himself and his family, we see he was a good young man who loved to box. Clay would turn pro and set his sights on becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.

In 1964, Clay accomplished his goal. Clay had been courted by the Nation of Islam (NOI) for a few years, but had not been granted membership. Clay met Malcom X (in Detroit) and was also inspired by the song “A White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell” by Louis Farrakhan. He became increasingly enthralled with the NOI’s message of segregation and the importance of ending the white man’s power over the black man.

Why did the Nation’s message take such a hold of young Clay? The movie doesn’t really address it, and that is a shame, because it would have been fascinating to know. Not providing that info did not diminish the quality of the narrative, but the inclusion of it would only have made it better. The movie made it quite clear though that neither Clay’s parents nor the members of his management team (11 white businessmen from his home town of Louisville) had the champ’s ear any longer.

Clay was officially admitted into the NOI and initially had his name changed to Cassius X. Soon after that, the leader of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, announced that Clay’s new name would be Muhammad Ali. This is when his first trial would begin, his trial of public opinion.

His name change really ruffled a lot of feathers. Many reporters and announcers didn’t use his new name, and some outright refused to call him Muhammad Ali. Ali made it worse by adopting a “white man is the devil” approach. There is a powerful clip of Ali appearing on the David Frost Show and calling Frost “the devil” to his face.

There were a lot of clips of former NOI members talking about their memories of Ali and their role in his life. The documentary gives the impression that although Ali did believe in what he was doing, it sure seemed he was being led by the NOI, and that they were using him (being a public figure) to promote their agenda.

The fact is, this first trial of his, the trial in the court of public opinion will go on for as long as he is alive, probably even after. He evoked such strong emotions and opinions from people, both for and against, that it will be a topic discussed for years to come. The fact is though, the man changed his name, so who among us has the right to tell the man no? You may not like his in-your-face style, but at the end of the day, isn’t it up to him what he wants to be called?

In 1966, Ali’s second trial began, this one literal. Ali was drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali refused to go, claiming “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Ali, through interviews, stated clearly he would not fight in the “white man’s war.”

He requested to be considered a conscientious objector, claiming that the Qur’an prohibits a Muslim from fighting in a war that is not declared by Allah. The court felt that he was objecting to the war based on racial grounds, not religious, and therefore denied his request and ordered him to report for service. He refused and was sentenced to 5 years in Jail and a $10,000 fine. Coincidentally, this would have been the same punishment served as his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad. Ali’s case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

This trial really infuriated people. Jackie Robinson said, ”He made American money, but he won’t fight for America?” Boxing legend Joe Louis said,” He doesn’t deserve the honor to be called champion.” Ali was not only stripped of his title, but his boxing licenses were revoked as well.

Ali goes on the lecture circuit where he really refines his public speaking ability. He always had a natural charisma and larger than life personality, but the movie seems to indicate that this is where he polished those skills. He learned how to captivate people with not only what he said, but HOW he said it.

One of the things this film does really well, which is very important for documentaries, is that it presents the information to you and allows you to formulate your own opinion. The truth is, this film does leave a little on the plate, so to speak, it leaves you wanting to know more. You have to remind yourself that this is NOT a full biopic on Ali, merely a focus on his trials.

As Ali’s daughter Hana put it, Muhammad Ali should be considered the 8th Wonder of the World. He is larger than life, and in fact, his legacy will live on many more generations past him. There is no way any film could satiate on such a hearty subject, but for the narrow focus of The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Bill Siegel delivers a complete gem.

You can read this and other reel reviews by Michael at Keeping It Reel.

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