NEW YORK--When a championship boxer like Muhammad Ali felt disrespected by another fighter, he might have been expected to do what most boxers would: knock his opponent’s lights out.
But the icon took a different route when faced with a rival he thought looked down on his religion: He prolonged the fight, aiming to up the level of spectacle and pain. He also made sure his opponent knew his reasons for doing so. “What’s my name? What’s my name?” Ali’s lips could be seen forming as he slowly demolished an opponent who insisted on calling him Cassius Clay.
The telling bit of footage from Ali’s 1967 bout with Floyd Patterson is one of many bits--particularly from the Supreme Court case about Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Army—that form “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” a new historical documentary from the Oscar-nominated documentarian Bill Siegel (“The Weather Underground”) that had a world premiere last weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival.
At a moment when the country is coming to terms, cinematically, with the difficult legacy of integration via the Jackie Robinson film “42,” Siegel’s documentary offers a different but oddly complementary view of our sports-themed racial past.
Where the 1947-set “42" shows a man who made the greatest statement against racism by saying nothing at all--he kept silent in the face of withering scorn so enemies would lack all ammunition against him--"The Trials of Muhammad Ali” shows an athlete unwilling to hold his tongue. As seen in Siegel’s film, Ali is usually talking, and he’s usually talking about race or religion, particularly after his conversion to Islam--a sharp counterpoint to Robinson and a demonstration of just how much had changed (in part because of Robinson) over the space of only 20 years.
Ali speaks up against black fighters he believes are selling out. He says he doesn’t want to kill North Vietnamese soldiers, whom he views as a minority (the famous “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong”) on behalf of a country he saw as an oppressor. He tells TV interviewer David Frost that, yes, he thinks “the white man is the devil.”
In its portrayal of a hyper-confident motormouth, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” leaves a clear impression. The fighter shook up America--and its assumptions about race--by being the opposite of Jackie: always talking, always reacting, always provoking.
Though Siegel’s film sometimes shies away from examining Ali’s thought patterns as it offers a more general inspirational message, there are a host of outside voices who step up with their own insight. And what they demonstrate is that, unlike Jackie Robinson’s unequivocal heroism, Ali is a more complicated figure, one not easily defined by any sort of popular conception. “There are so many ways of looking at [Ali] that have everything to do with us and nothing to do with him,” said the sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, a longtime Ali chronicler.
Siegel’s project has an interesting back story. More than eight years ago, he began looking into a Kentucky mock-trial competition centered on the Supreme Court case, before realizing that Ali’s struggle and all the issues of sports, race and class it raises, was the more interesting film. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the film is produced by the company of “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James.)
The film draws on footage and interviews with black leaders, journalists and Ali confidantes to draw a portrait of an icon’s beliefs, as well as of an era that included the rise and assassination of Malcolm X, Ali’s complicated relationship with Martin Luther King Jr., and, of course, Ali’s refusal to be drafted and the Supreme Court case (and boxing ban) that followed. That last one is particularly telling, as Siegel finds a former court clerk who walks us through the backroom debate, as much political as judicial, that led to the surprising 8-0 ruling in favor of the fighter.
Ali’s outspoken first wife, Khalilah, is given ample air time--she appeared at the screening, where she quipped in a Q&A; that she was working on her own movie (“Won’t be a Pulitzer like yours but a chick movie”). Current spouse Lonnie did not participate.
Ali himself is seen only briefly in the present day. Siegel said the fighter has seen a rough cut of the film and liked it, adding playfully that Ali “likes nothing more than to watch films about himself.”
This movie is slated for an appearance on public television via the service ITVS in 2014 but could get a theatrical run before that.
In a curious coincidence, the film is one of two new projects focusing on Ali’s Vietnam chapter. The other title, “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” from the Oscar-nominated feature director Stephen Frears, is having a world premiere next month at the Cannes Film Festival and will air on HBO later this year.
Despite the risk of Ali overload, Siegel said he felt there was no danger of delving into the subject too much. “You can’t make ‘Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story,’” he said. “There will never be the last word with Muhammad Ali.”
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