TCA: Muhammad Ali fights on in new PBS documentary

Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali is having a TV renaissance.

HBO last year premiered “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” a docudrama centered on the legal battle in 1967 that erupted when the heavyweight champion and newly converted Muslim refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War and was stripped of his title.

That film, directed by Stephen Frears, focused primarlily on the U.S. Supreme Court taking up the case. Ali is seen in a few film clips but is largely absent from the film.

But the athlete is front and center in “The Trials of Muhammad Ail,” a documentary that will premiere April 14 on PBS’ “Independent Lens.” While the film covers the same era as the HBO film, the spotlight is solely on Ali as he became the central figure in a controversy that revolved around race, religion and wartime dissent.

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The documentary is filled with archival footage of Ali dealing with those angered over his oppostion to the war and conducting angry speeches on college campuses.


Bill Siegel, who directed the documentary, said he was first mortified when he heard that the HBO film was tackling the same subject matter as his movie. He was relieved when he learned that those filmmakers made the “brilliant decision” not to cast an actor as Ali and that the focus was on the Supreme Court case.

“This was a bigger fight than anything he had in the ring,” he said.

He said his documentary is distinctive not only because of its view on Ali but also of its depiction of how he altered popular and political culture. Included in the film are several interviews with Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the boxer’s first wife and the other of his first four children.

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In a session promoting the film, Camacho-Ali spoke of how depressed the boxer was behind closed doors during the period and how she was determined to keep up his spirits. “I had to give up that positive attitude,” she said. “He was not happy, and I had to try and keep things going, keep it in a positive mood.”

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Ali’s brother Rahman are also featured.

Siegel said Ali has seen the documentary and is pleased with it. “There’s nothing he likes more than watching a film about Muhammad Ali.”


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