Movie Review: The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)
Bill Siegel’s “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” starts out with a helluva one-two punch.
The first image we see is archival footage of Ali in 1968 on a British talk show, speaking remotely from the U.S., and it’s all very polite and dull … until it isn’t. American talk show host and producer David Susskind, of whom I knew vaguely and tend to associate with intellectualism and left-wing causes (his was the first nationally broadcast show to feature Americans against the Vietnam War, for example), excoriates the dethroned heavyweight champion. He says he finds nothing interesting or tolerable about Ali at all. “He has been found guilty,” he says. “He is a simplistic fool and a pawn,” he says. He says nastier things about Muhammad Ali than I’ve said about anyone in my life. And Ali? He just sits there, looking uncomfortable. That’s the first punch.
Before Ali responds—if he responds—and how could the Louisville Lip not have responded?—Siegel cuts to November 2005, the White House, where Pres. George W. Bush presents the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, to Ali, then lauds the Parkinson’s-debilitated, three-time heavyweight champion with words nicer than I’ve used about anyone in my life. That’s the second punch.
The obvious question is how Ali went from pariah in 1968 to hero in 2005.
A third punch, immediately following these two, doesn’t quite land. It’s Minister Louis Farrakhan, one of the doc’s talking heads, telling us about meeting Ali after the Medal of Freedom ceremony. When Farrakhan congratulates him, Ali leans in and says, “Still a nigger.” Farrakhan professes shock at this so Ali has to say it again: “Still a nigger.” Then Farrakhan asks the camera, “What did my brother mean?”
It doesn’t quite land because I don’t quite buy Farrakhan’s story. Not what Ali said but that it needed repeating to Farrakhan of all people. Besides, it’s a dull sentiment these days—Malcolm X was saying the same thing 50 years ago (What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.?)—and it raises an unasked question: still a nigger … to whom? Pres. Bush? The white establishment? All white people? There will always be people who view other groups reductively and pejoratively. So … what did Farrakhan’s brother mean?
But that first punch? That one buckles the knees.
Full disclosure: Bill Siegel, a researcher on “Hoop Dreams,” and the co-director of the Academy-Award-nominated doc “The Weather Underground,” is a good friend of good friends. Ten years ago I gave a mixed-review to “Weather Underground” for The Seattle Times, and I’ve felt bad about it ever since. Some part of me thinks I was reacting to the content in the doc—the left’s radicalism that led to the ascendancy of the right, whose crappy world I was living in—rather than the doc itself. But during “Trials” I felt a similar sense of umbrage rising in me. It’s the umbrage of the partially told story.
Fuller disclosure: I’m not a fan of the Nation of Islam. Its origin myth, of the evil scientist Yakub, 6,600 years ago, bleaching the natural black races to create the white race, who was the devil on Earth, was a myth of hatred, but that myth itself has been bleached out of the Nation’s history. No one talks about it anymore. It’s not brought up here, for example. More, the Nation came to prominence in great part because of the eloquence of Malcolm X, who is generally lauded by the Nation … until he breaks with Elijah Muhammad in 1963, leaves the Nation behind, and is then assassinated by Nation members—even if, here and elsewhere, the U.S. government, often the FBI, gets the blame. I get the appeal of the group: clean, upstanding, bow ties. I just have no interest in an organization that has always viewed me, not to mention most of the people I love, as the devil.
At one point in “Trials,” we see an interviewer on ’60s television asking Ali about this: does the champ see him, the interviewer, as the devil? Ali owns up to it. Then he makes owning up to it the point. He says he’s not going to pretend he believes something he doesn’t. He goes on and on about this, but it’s a classic case of misdirection. You want to say: It’s not that you believe or that you own up to believing it; it’s what you believe.
But Ali was good at such misdirection. I suppose a boxer has to be. Plus he was a showman—one of the best. It’s just hard sometimes to parse the showmanship—the bullshit—from the sincerely believed.
Ali, no doubt, believed in the Nation and in Islam. Siegel sheds light on the moment, in February 1964, after Ali beats Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. “I shook up the world!” Ali says. Then he adds, and Siegel underlines the point but including subtitles, “I know the real God!” I’d never heard that part of it before. I’d heard “Shook up the world!” and “Eat your words!” to the press, but not “I know the real God!” One wonders how much this belief helped him win the title. Or whether winning the title helped him believe.
Unlike most docs about Ali, “Trials” focuses less on the ring and more on Ali’s relationship with the Nation and his refusal to serve in Vietnam.
As the Vietnam War escalated in the mid-1960s, draft standards were lowered, and Ali, heavyweight champion of the world, was reclassified 1-A. What had he been classified before? And why? We don’t find out. But his reaction is famous. “I ain’t got nothing against those Viet Cong,” he said.
The authorities circled. The previous generation’s famous black athletes—Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson—were trotted out to condemn him. Ali’s Louisville Sponsoring Group, the 11 white men who had bankrolled him since his gold medal in Rome, worked to get him into the National Guard; but to Ali’s credit he refused the Dan Quayle/George W. Bush route. As a result, the consortium dropped him. Again, to his credit, he called every member of the group to thank them for their help. But now he was isolated except for the Nation. He probably would’ve been eventually anyway. That’s the direction he was heading.
Siegel presents various moments from his years in the wilderness: speaking at college campuses; debating William F. Buckley on “Firing Line”; appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in beard and afro wig and singing a song from his starring role in the Broadway musical, “Buck White,” which he was only doing because he was not allowed to fight. “Your greatest trial,” he’s told, “isn’t in the ring but with the American people.”
I suppose the hatred Ali’s draft resistance caused, and which is apparent in Susskind’s reaction, is not really that hard to understand. Ali was a professional fighter and a braggart. His religion was considered a hate group. Yet he refused to join the Army because he was too peaceful? Who was he kidding?
Yet he won that trial with the American people and with the courts. “Once Ali took the stand [against the Vietnam War],” Siegel has said in interviews, “he didn’t waver. What changed was everything else.”
The doc reminds us he barely won it. He had, as a talking head says, one foot and three toes in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court was going to rule against him, 5-3 (Thurgood Marshall, recusing), in Clay v. United States, and that would be it. But Justice John Marshall Harlan, writing the majority opinion, began to waver. What’s fascinating—and worthy of its own doc—was the politicking behind what should have been a strictly legal decision. Was Ali sincere in his religious beliefs? Was there precedent? What would the result be if they ruled broadly in his favor? So the Court wound up ruling narrowly in his favor. He got off on a technicality: the state’s inconsistent argument regarding the sincerity of Ali’s beliefs.
Watching, one can’t help but wonder what Ali’s legacy would be if he had gone to prison for five years. How would he be regarded today? Would he be awarded the Medal of Freedom at the White House? Would docs like this be made? Or would Muhammad Ali, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Century, be a mere footnote in history?
“The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is a well-made doc, with, again, eye-opening archival footage. (Another example: Jerry Lewis hosting “The Tonight Show” before the Liston fight and telling the future champ to shut up. “I think you’re a big bag of wind,” Lewis says.)
Siegel also gathers an impressive group of talking heads from the period: Khalilah Camacho-Ali, Ali’s second wife, who, early on, tore up a “Cassius Clay” autograph in his face because that was his slave name; Gordon B. Davidson, the last surviving member of the Louisville group, who is still sharp and dignified; Robert Lipsyte, the great New York Times sports reporter; and various members of the Nation, including Captain Sam, the Miami minister who recruited Clay to the cause. Siegel allows each the space they need to shed what light they have.
At times it’s enough light to illuminate the past. At other times, it’s merely enough to feel our way toward further discussion.