Bill Siegel: The Trials of Muhammad Ali

The press kit for this film makes a point out of that this is no conventional sports documentary. It is true that the actual boxing scenes are quite limited and maybe the film makers find this fact as radical as its protagonist, but it is after all a quite conventional documentary consisting of archive material and recent interviews. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t interesting (frankly, I’ve always found boxing a bit too destructive to be really beautiful, but maybe that’s just me), and the film’s biggest credo is to give us a new insight towards the life and times of the man who was baptized Cassius Clay and renamed Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam. I don’t recall having seen much of the archive material or any of the interviewees in another film before, and the structural editing brings it neatly and chronologically together without any need for a narrator.

The main focus of the film is to shine a light on the clash between a very segregated society and a talented, Afro-American boxer with an extreme self-confidence. At first, we are presented with a young, black fighter, belittled by a bunch of unpleasant middle-aged “personalities” on TV and from then on, the film is steering us towards thinking that Ali is just that: a victim that stood up against a racist society. It may very well be part of the truth of Ali’s life and even though we do get a few sound bites with black Americans opposing Ali’s statements about the white man being the devil, the dialectics of the film are somewhat limited.

It raises questions: Why Ali turned to Nations of Islam and their leader Elijah Muhammad rather than the civil rights movements and Martin Luther King? And what did the differences between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam consist of? And did the Supreme Court have a point by questioning Ali’s conscientious objection to go to Vietnam as a drafted soldier? But those are not questions I long for to remain (at least in part) unanswered and I’d rather have the film forcing me to rethink my own prejudice against the US in the 1960’es and 70’es or to make parallels to society of today or to the clash between different religious and/or ideological ideas. Let me be fair: it does that too, for instance by reminding us that Louisville Sponsoring Group, a group of white capitalists, backed Clay up in the first years – supposedly to his satisfaction – and by quoting him of the now rather obsolete statement that Nation of Islam didn’t kill Malcolm X, because “muslims wouldn’t kill anybody nor carry a weapon” (ca. 1967).

All in all, it’s a somewhat conservative film about a radical protagonist but well worth your while if you are interested in modern American history… and in this neck of the woods (planet Earth) you kind of have to.

USA, 2013, 92 mins.

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Mikkel Stolt
Mikkel Stolt
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