It is hard to imagine a time when Muhammad Ali was not a hero. When sports journalists present the greatest athletes of the 20th century, Ali appears at the end with the same inevitability that "Thriller" ends a countdown of the greatest music videos. Yet there was a time when people refused to say anything good about Cassius Clayeven refused to call him by his chosen name. The Trials of Muhammad Ali captures that time vividly.
The documentary, produced by Kartemquin Films and directed with restrained craft by Bill Siegel, covers Ali's life from his gold medal in the 1960 Olympics through his comeback fight against Jerry Quarry in 1970. Of course what matters is what necessitated the comeback: Ali's involvement with the Nation of Islam and subsequent felony conviction for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.
The film opens with present-day Ali detailing the moment he won Olympic gold in Rome, raising his shaky hand to describe the progress of the flag as he hums the first notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner." This is the Ali with whom we are now comfortable and familiar—the dignified old man who seems to control his body via a bad internet connection, smiling and periodically looking around as if trying to remember whether he's supposed to keep talking or punch someone's head off.
Seventy-one-year-old Ali is safely historical. Nineteen-year-old Cassius Clay was a scary monster. He scared other heavyweights with his speed and power, and he scared white people with his confidence and professionally improbable good looks. Here was a young black man who could probably knock anyone in America unconscious, and he was not particularly polite.
Yet the Louisville Lip did not return from Rome with his personality fully formed, and The Trials of Muhammad Ali does good work in the early going to remind us of that. The film gets plenty of mileage out of Gordon Davidson, the last surviving member of the legendary Louisville Sponsoring Group, who jovially describes the young Clay submitting a $2,000 expense claim for orange juice. The Sponsoring Group may have been the only honest managers in the history of boxing, and Davidson appears as a relic of a bygone America.
It is not the only obsolete country of which The Trials of Muhammad Ali reminds us. Davidson's counterpart in likable geriatrics is Abdul Rahman Muhammad, better known as Captain Sam, who introduced Clay to the Nation of Islam. Clay's conversion, his friendship with Malcolm X and his eventual public embrace of the Nation led him to a belief that Sam explains smiling, straight into the camera: America is the white man's nation, and there is no safe place for a black man in it.
Cassius Clay, then Muhammad Ali, began to espouse that belief shortly after he won the heavyweight title. America's response proved him right. For Ali, Islam was less a religion than a rhetoric of black liberation. It fit perfectly with his emerging personality as a confident young world-beater, and it gave white America a reason to hate him.
That dynamic of mutual refusal occasioned some of the most memorable moments in Ali's career—calling Sonny Liston a gorilla, standing over the fallen Floyd Patterson and shouting "What's my name?" History remembers it as a show, but The Trials reminds us that at that time, it was Ali's struggle to assert his beliefs to America and to himself.
That struggle came to a head when Ali refused the draft. Here Siegel does a fine job of stripping away historical whitewash, casting doubt on the famous and probably apocryphal quote about how "no Viet Cong ever called me nigger," and including an interview in which Ali complains, unlikably, that his income taxes have already bought the U.S. military a few bombers. Ali may have objected to the idea that he was not exceptional as much as to war itself. But his beliefs were deeply founded, and he paid for them with five years of exile from the sport he loved.
In the end, the Supreme Court vindicated him, and so did history. Today, Muhammad Ali is a hero. Siegel's documentary reminds us that it was not always so, that for many years we refused to call him what we call him now.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali screens at the Roxy Theater Sept. 20 through Sept. 23 at 7 and 9 PM nightly. $7/$6 students and seniors.