"The Trials of Muhammad Ali" a layer, not the whole cake

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Sep. 25, 2013

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"The Trials of Muhammad Ali" is content to remain outside the ring, utilizing talking-head interviews from the subject’s friends and family.

“I find nothing amusing, interesting or tolerable about this man. He’s a disgrace to his country, to his race and what he laughably describes as his profession,” hisses chat show host David Susskind in the 1968 television clip that opens Bill Siegel’s documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Sandbagged via satellite, the man some still called Cassius Clay averts his gaze downward as the journalist’s bilious verbal assault continues: “He will inevitably go to prison, which he should. He’s a simplistic fool and a pawn.”

Sigel abruptly cuts to 2005, with footage of Muhammad Ali receiving the Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. This shrewd juxtaposition speaks volumes about Ali’s fraught journey from pariah to icon, during which a man once considered a menace became a celebrated symbol of American individualism. Muhammad Ali’s story says so much about this country’s history, there’s no way a single movie could do justice to all the contradictions—though Michael Mann’s stubbornly artsy, underrated 2001 biopic Ali comes pretty damn close.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali
is content to remain outside the ring, utilizing talking-head interviews from the subject’s friends and family, plus some invaluable archival footage, in an attempt to contextualize the years-long furor and eventual Supreme Court battle over Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam. Often bogged down in legalese, the film fares best when it relies on eye-opening vintage TV appearances. A generation raised on the Leno-fied banality of modern television interviews will be shocked by the simmering hostility in these broadcasts, during which everybody from William F. Buckley Jr. to Jerry Lewis insults the heavyweight champion to his face, mocking his name-change, political views and religious beliefs.

You won’t find Howard Cosell here, and I think that might be why Siegel’s narrow focus sounds admirable in theory, but feels so thin and limited in practice. Consigning his remarkable feats of athleticism to footnote status and sticking strictly to religion and politics takes away what made him *Muhammad Ali.* It’s a sometimes maddeningly incomplete portrait of the champ on the defensive, where he was never at his best. Throughout The Trials of Muhammad Ali, we long to see the swagger and the grace—the loudmouth know-it-all who could get away with calling himself the Greatest, because he was. 

Ali’s trials, both in the courtroom and the media, are indeed important chapters. But they’re part of a story much larger than this film.

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1. Linda White said... on Sep 26, 2013 at 06:53PM

“I have been a fan of this man since he was Cassius Clay. He is an inspiration to all mankind. I have watched his career from it's infancy and he has NEVER ceased to amaze me!! I wish that he was Father to ALL our young Black men, husband to ALL our women who deserve better and friend to our adult men who have lost their way, and believe that a white woman is the answer to their prayers. We, the people who truly understand who you are and the message you convey, thank you. You are a beacon in he vast darkness that is the existence of our people. You are LOVED!!”

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2. O. Ali said... on Sep 26, 2013 at 08:47PM

“Will someone tell me why did he marry a women who keeps his son out of his life.”


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