×

Film Review: ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’

The heavyweight champ's controversial political views are reexamined in this stirring, fascinating documentary.

With:

Rahaman Ali, Gordon Davidson, Louis Farrakhan, Salim Muwakkil, Robert Lipsyte, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, John Carlos, Hana Ali, Abdul Rahman Muhammad, Abdul Bey Muhammad, Thomas Krattenmaker, Henry Winston. 

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Trials of Muhammad Ali'

Reviewed at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 28, 2013. Running time: 94 MIN.

Production:

(Documentary) A Kino Lorber release of a Kartemquin Educational Films, Projecto Willis and ITVS production in association with the Corp. for Public Broadcasting. Produced by Rachel Pikelny, Bill Siegel. Executive producers, Leon Gast, Kat White, Sally Jo Figer, Justine Nagan, Gordon Quinn.

Crew:

Directed by Bill Siegel. Camera (color, HD), Andy Black, Marcel Cabrera, Jeff Freeman, Slawomir Grunberg, Dana Kupper, Duane Poquis, Ines Sommer, Stanley Staniski, Aaron Wickenden; editor, Wickenden; music, Joshua Abrams; sound, Brad Cassetto, Joe French, Brian Garfield, Lupe Meija, David Mendez, Zak Piper, Mike Reilly, Bob Silverthorne; re-recording mixer, Zach Goheen. 

With:

Rahaman Ali, Gordon Davidson, Louis Farrakhan, Salim Muwakkil, Robert Lipsyte, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, John Carlos, Hana Ali, Abdul Rahman Muhammad, Abdul Bey Muhammad, Thomas Krattenmaker, Henry Winston. 

More Film

  • 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    Film Review: 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    In one of the intermittent revealing moments in “QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight,” a documentary about the films of Quentin Tarantino that’s like a familiar but tasty sundae for Quentin fans, we see Tarantino on the set of “Pulp Fiction,” shooting the iconic dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. As John Travolta and Uma [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    Why Emma Stone Was Haunted by Fear of Vomiting While Shooting 'Zombieland: Double Tap'

    SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains a slight spoiler for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” The zombie slayers are back! Ten years after Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin first killed dead people walking in “Zombieland,” they’ve reunited for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” “You take stock of your life a little bit,” Stone says of [...]

  • Hereditary

    The Best Horror Films to Stream Right Now

    Good horror movies aren’t always easy to scare up, but with Halloween on the horizon, Variety has compiled a list of some of the best horror films available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. NETFLIX Apostle Cult horror meets religious hypocrisy in this creepy gothic thriller, which follows prodigal son Thomas Richardson, who returns home [...]

  • Brett Gelman

    'Stranger Things' Star Brett Gelman Joins Michael B. Jordan in 'Without Remorse'

    Brett Gelman, best known for his scene-stealing roles in “Fleabag,” “Stranger Things” and “Love,” has joined Michael B. Jordan in Paramount’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “Without Remorse.” Jamie Bell and Jodie Turner-Smith are also on board. Jordan is starring as operations officer John Clark, also known as John Terrence Kelly, a former Navy SEAL who [...]

  • US director Francis Ford Coppola holds

    Francis Ford Coppola Honored With Prestigious Lumiere Prize by Thierry Fremaux, Bong Joon Ho

    Francis Ford Coppola took the stage to claim the Lumière Festival’s lifetime achievement honor, the Lumière Prize, in a stirring celebration that marked the festival’s 10th edition on Friday night in Lyon, France. The four-time Academy Award winner accepted the prize after a series of video tributes, musical performances and testimonials from family, friends and [...]

  • 'Human Capital' Sells to Vertical Entertainment,

    Liev Schreiber, Maya Hawke's 'Human Capital' Sells Rights to DirecTV, Vertical Entertainment (EXCLUSIVE)

    Vertical Entertainment and DirecTV have jointly acquired the North American distribution rights to “Human Capital,” an official selection of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival from director Marc Meyers. The film stars Oscar winner Marisa Tomei, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, and Maya Hawke. The ensemble drama follows numerous interconnected stories surrounding a hit and run, [...]

  • Robert Zemeckis

    Robert Zemeckis in Talks to Direct Live-Action 'Pinocchio' for Disney (EXCLUSIVE)

    Robert Zemeckis is in early talks to direct Disney’s live-action “Pinocchio.” Andrew Miano and Chris Weitz will produce through their company Depth of Field with Weitz penning the script. “Paddington” director Paul King had originally been tapped to direct but had to leave the project for unknown reasons at the beginning of the year. David [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content