Though few athletes seem as widely beloved in retirement, the erstwhile Cassius Clay was once one of the most controversial — and in many quarters loathed — public figures in America. “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” provides a fascinating flashback to that era, when the boxer’s personal convictions put him at the center of 1960s debates over civil rights and the Vietnam War. The first solo feature by Bill Siegel, co-director (with Sam Green) of 2002’s “The Weather Underground,” this stirring documentary opens in Los Angeles and five other markets this Friday, following a three-week NYC run. It’s already booked for a broadcast preem next May on PBS’ “Independent Lens.”
The drastic change in Ali’s public perception is vividly illustrated in an opening one-two punch, as we see him called “a disgrace to his country, his race and his profession” to his face (via satellite, that is) by TV personality David Susskind in 1968, then 37 years later being incongruously awarded the Medal of Freedom by hawkish President George W. Bush.
The direct cause of the earlier insult was Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam, which he described as continuing “the domination of white slave masters over dark people the world over.” His conscientious objector claim denied, he was convicted of felony charges for evading military induction, and was out on bail at the time of the Susskind confrontation. While that judgment was finally reversed by the Supreme Court, Ali’s sporting career was derailed at its very height, and for years no state would allow him a boxing license.
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But as “Trials” shows, the fighter had already galled many observers well before this standoff. Debuting as a pro soon after winning a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics, he immediately earned a reputation as a gleeful, quick-witted braggart — behavior not viewed kindly in an era when successful “Negroes” were expected to be grateful and deferential. (TV clips show his motormouth really ticking off other interviewers, notably a furious Jerry Lewis.)
Ali’s public conversion to Islam in 1964 poured gas on the flames, as Supreme Minister Elijah Muhammad’s divisive, separatist racial philosophies made the Nation of Islam seem a dangerous cult to many white Americans. Though he softened his own rhetoric when the Nation did (following Elijah Muhammad’s 1975 demise), back then Ali freely dropped bombs like, “I truly believe all white people are devils.”
Yet at the same time, Ali’s brashness made him a hero to many, not just within the African-American community. Barred from the ring, he toured campuses and elsewhere as a speaker, and found resourceful ways to support himself and his family during his exile. (The pic’s most startling such revelation is a long clip from “Buck White,” the very short-lived 1969 Broadway musical in which Ali starred — pretty much playing himself, and kinda-sorta “singing” and “dancing.”) He certainly never faded from the limelight, at least not before Parkinson’s began seriously effecting his speech and movement three decades ago.
Numerous prior Ali docus have amply chronicled his triumphant boxing career (though HBO’s “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” which airs Oct. 5 on the pay cabler, also focuses on the champ’s anti-Vietnam battle with the government). While “Trials” includes a necessary smattering of boxing, emphasis is on the political, religious and ethical stands he took, often at great risk to his status as an athlete. The portrait that emerges is of a complex, sometimes contrary but always supremely self-confidant man who seemingly never made a difficult decision he regretted. It’s an inspiring picture, particularly given the difficulty of imagining one of today’s sports superstars going so far out on a limb for unpopular beliefs.
Cramming in a great deal of material without ever seeming rushed, the package is accomplished on all levels, with Joshua Abrams’ terrific jazz/soul/funk score a major plus.