The toughest part about filming a Muhammad Ali documentary has to be narrowing the focus to only one or two aspects of the man’s incredibly eventful life. Ali is an icon whose professional boxing career launched in 1960, and he hasn’t really left the public conversation since.
Bill Siegel’s “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” reminds us, though, that the boxer fought significant battles outside of the ring, as well. And in doing so, “Trials” educates casual boxing fans about the unexpected political, religious and social strife Ali encountered — and largely brought upon himself — during a tumultuous time in our nation’s racially divided past.
Which version of Ali do you remember best? The dominant fighter dancing around opponents in the prime of his boxing career? The flamboyant pre- and post-fight interviews, where the boastful entertainer played to the cameras like a politician on the campaign trail? Younger audiences might think of the contemporary, fragile and slightly humbled Ali, who wrestles with Parkinson’s disease but still stays active in the public eye.
All three are represented in “Trials,” though Siegel eventually settles his attention on two specific decisions that shaped the latter stages of the boxer’s career. Using archival footage and modern interviews with Ali’s family members, managers and friends (but none with Ali himself), the film traces how the former Cassius Clay shed his identity in favor of the teachings of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. Later, “Trials” explains how Ali’s evolving religious beliefs soured his opinion of the Vietnam War, turning an adored athlete into a vilified draft dodger.
In a way, Siegel’s documentary operates as a companion piece to “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a dramatization of the civil rights era that dedicates half of its runtime to Freedom Riders, Black Panthers and like-minded African American activists who made extreme sacrifices in the name of unpopular political ideologies. According to Siegel, Ali frequently analyzed how African Americans were viewed by the white majority in the mid-1960s. His investigations led him to the Muslim faith, which he viewed as an aggressive vehicle for necessary change.
Siegel’s documentary is balanced. It shows us just enough of Ali in his prime so that we understand how much he lost when he refused to serve in Vietnam. Ali became a convicted felon, and was stripped of his boxing license (which led to the removal of his championship title).
Seeing groundbreaking African American athletes and proud military veterans like Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis speak out against Ali’s decision actually stings like a bee, to borrow one of the boxer’s popular phrases.
Siegel isn’t building toward any knockout punch of a revelation in “Trials,” and the film gradually grows dry and preachy in the way that historical documentaries can feel like homework for those with only a passing curiosity in the subject. Even those able to feed off of Ali’s inherent charisma will lose focus as Siegel spells out the lengthy Supreme Court battles to appeal Ali’s criminal conviction and regain his boxing career. But for those seeking further insight into this sliver of Ali’s remarkable career, “Trials” is as comprehensive as it gets.
O’Connell is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Contains mature thematic material
and some adult language. 94 minutes.