“A white man’s heaven is a black man’s hell”
While the structure of Bill Siegel‘s The Trials of Muhammad Ali delivers nothing new to the language of documentary—archival footage mixed with present-day interviews working towards a specific thesis—the story at it’s back is too interesting to blindly dismiss. We all know Ali as a poet, the champion lording over Sonny Liston, and a member of the Nation of Islam. We know him as a conscientious dissenter who never ended up in jail, but do we know the details surrounding this fact? I sure didn’t. The timeframe of late-60s to early-70s was way outside my generation’s purview and the evolution from Cassius Clay to minister never really seemed relevant to his stature as an athlete. Watching Siegel’s film break it down, however, shows it is.
The televised interviews Siegel chooses are brutal assaults on Ali’s image and a perfect representation of the media climate surrounding one of the biggest decisions of his life. Opening on David Susskind lambasting him via satellite is painful to see. Hearing Jerry Lewis scream, “Let me finish!” is just another showing of white superiority trying to tear this former Olympic gold medal winner down. The media very obviously spun Ali’s story through a white man’s filter, afraid of his religion and his tenacity. When Vietnam veterans protested the war it was a sign of patriotism, but when Ali refused to fight for the same reasons years previous he became a pariah. He never backed down, lost three and a half years of his career, and millions of dollars.
How can this story not be a captivating one to watch unfold? The dance between he and Elijah Muhammad‘s Nation of Islam proves a complex courtship that couldn’t have occurred at a more significant moment in his life. He was ruffling feathers with brazen confidence, declaring he’d be the champ before the age of twenty-one—something even his Louisville group of advisors didn’t truly believe. He was a punk kid who came out of nowhere that the sport’s established greats hoped to knock down a peg or two. And when those greats refused to call him by his new name after finally agreeing to join his Muslim brothers, he ensured they suffered in the ring. Because really, how can you expect respect if you’re unwilling to give it?
Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times best explains the climate of his period to my mind. He talks about how his editors wouldn’t let him use the name Muhammad Ali despite having no problem calling white celebrities from Hollywood like John Wayne by their stage monikers. Lipsyte is also unafraid to tell it like it is whether that means Ali did something right or wrong. He’s ever the journalist speaking the facts to his opinion. The same goes with Salim Muwakkil. Hearing from these secondary sources who lived through it as historians rather than friends or enemies supplies the most objective version of things. Some of the other interviewees are too quick to share their influence on the champ. While not unjustified, it does come off self-serving.
Ali’s brother Rahman Ali‘s emotion is critical to the film since everything else is pretty black and white as far as details and facts are concerned. Ex-wife Kahlilah Camacho-Ali for instance has less to say about Ali as a husband or father and more about her advising him to be a good member of Islam. This is the goal of the film, however, as Siegel is telling that specific side of the boxer’s persona rather than his bare humanity. I commend the decision and accept its purpose, but I won’t say it doesn’t lend the whole an unnecessary dryness that might have been avoided otherwise. It initially makes it seem as though Ali couldn’t think for himself too, but this tactic actually proves the breadth of his intelligence.
Ali wasn’t jumping first and asking questions later. He truly wanted to be a pillar of the Islamic community in America. Everyone interviewed here says that the first year of his exile from the sport was a struggle as he tried to find his voice and not simply regurgitate rhetoric at speaking engagements. He had to find his feet, learn all he could to be his best self, and ease into the shoes a nation put him in before he was completely ready. He wasn’t afraid to receive help or take the verbal abuse thrown his direction. Ali didn’t put his life on-hold to do all these things; they became his life. We know him as a boxer, but that’s ultimately a disservice to his memory.
This film seeks to show how much deeper his motivations were—how this kid from Kentucky who ran his mouth learned to quiet down and find real meaning in his life. It’s a protest film wherein the protest was being who he sought to be despite the hardships wrought. If jail was in his future, so be it. If someone let him fight and make a living as we all have a right to do, even better. Whether you agree with Ali’s stance or not, you cannot deny his courage to never back down from his beliefs no matter how difficult things became. His is a tale of racial prejudice, religious persecution, and war propaganda to which he embraced his leading role to try and overturn them all.
 Muhammad Ali walks through the streets of New York City with members of the Black Panther Party in September 1970.
 Ali prays at the Hussein Mosque in Cairo in June 1964, four months after changing his name from Cassius Clay and announcing he is a member of the Nation of Islam.
 Director Bill Siegel and Khalilah Camacho-Ali