“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.