‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’: Boxer as Civil Rights figure

Not everyone is aware of the great irony of Atlanta, when an elderly Muhammad Ali lit the torch for the 1996 Summer Olympics or when in 2005 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President George W. Bush. “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is a sympathetic documentary that shows Ali’s transformation from Cassius Clay to a controversial figure who would eventually be honored.

Yet this is not a boxing documentary. Director Bill Siegel is more interested in the public and legal rounds that Ali had with the American government and the mainstream media.  Ali converted to Islam (first the Nation of Islam and later to Sunni Islam) and presented himself as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He was given a trial that he would only win on appeal, but he was stripped of his boxing title.

Siegal uses archival footage, photos and contemporary interviews with family members and the surviving member of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, to illustrate the progression of Ali from the brash and beautiful young black man who threatened the white establishment to an honored and much beloved celebrity athlete crippled by Parkinson’s disease.

Ali is now 71. In 1960, he was a handsome six-foot-three light heavyweight boxer who had just won the gold medal at the Rome Olympics. He was 18.  Returning to the United States as an Olympic celebrity, he came under the management of the Louisville Sponsoring Group. The Group could not have imagined how unmanageable Ali was. It wasn’t that he was undisciplined; Ali became a visible face of the Civil Rights Movement.

Four years after his Olympic win, he became the world heavyweight champion, beating Sonny Liston. Ali is one of three boxers to be named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated and he is the first and only three-time lineal heavyweight boxing champion.

In 1967, he refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War and was convicted of draft evasion. The Nation of Islam was a new faith and part of a controversial political movement. By 1971, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, but Ali didn’t box for four years. And by 1975, he would leave the Nation of Islam.

Ali in his prime was a beautiful, brash black man. Watching him simmer under the verbal assault by David Susskind during a satellite TV interview is revealing. Ali isn’t impetuous nor does he allow rage to control him even as Susskind calls him a disgrace to his country and profession and “a simplistic fool and pawn.” The clip is from a 1968 episode of “The Eamonn Andrews Show.” Susskind, the host of his own show

Susskind is supposed to be asking a question, but instead he takes the opportunity to lambast Ali:

Well, I don’t know where to begin. I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He’s a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughingly describes as his profession. He is a convicted felon in the United States. He has been found guilty. He is out on bail. He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should. He’s a simplistic fool and a pawn.

For those unfamiliar with Susskind, he had a nationally syndicated show, “The David Susskind Show” that began as “Open End” in 1958 and ended it’s run in 1986, about half a year before Susskind died. It was the first national show to have people criticizing the American involvement in the Vietnam War.  Susskind interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. for two-hours on “Open End” in 1963, a few months before King would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. Susskind was considered a liberal, but he was no fan of Ali.

Then there’s another clip of Ali performing in a play (“Big Time Buck White”). Siegel found the rarely seen clip while researching another Ali documentary (“Muhammad Ali–The Whole Story”) 23 years ago. Clips like these make this documentary well-worth watching as does the commentary about how once Middle Eastern Islam was seen as good compared to the bad influence of the Nation of Islam.

Just as the public’s perception of the Civil Rights Movement and Muhammad Ali have changed, so has the public perception of Islam. By 1987, Ali was beloved enough to be in the Tournament of Roses Parade.  And by 1996, Ali was cheered in Atlanta.  More recently, Ali was the titular Olympic flag bearer for the London Olympics in 2012 although his Parkinson’s Disease had progressed so much he was unable to actually carry the flag.

While “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” has its faults, chiefly due to be too sympathetic to its subject, the documentary does illustrate how courageous Ali was and how decades later he would be vindicated.  History doesn’t always vindicate the presentation of the news; sometimes it vindicates the people who were criticized instead of the critics.

We remember Muhammad Ali not because of his boxing, but because he was the greatest promoter and a great example of personal courage and religious faith in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is available on Amazon Video ($4.99 to $12.99)

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