There’s more than a hint of hagiography to Bill Siegel’s documentary, the title of which refers not only to the legal processes the boxing champion had to go through after his claim of conscientious objector military status but also to the public treatment he suffered as both black man in the America of the sixties and a vocal convert to the Nation of Islam—a highly unpopular role. From its very first scene, an excerpt from a television interview in which David Susskind verbally excoriates him, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” portrays its subject in the most elevated terms even as wolves rage around him, and concludes on a triumphant note as Ali wins his court battles, famously lights the torch to open the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and even receives the Medal of Freedom—from President George W. Bush, no less. Still, this is a story that tells us some dark truths about the recent American past, as well as recounting the journey of a remarkable, if controversial, man from childhood poverty to international celebrity.
From a technical perspective, the film is entirely conventional, juxtaposing archival footage with newly-shot interviews. But the found material, from the shocking Susskind diatribe through the lighting ceremony, is well-chosen, particularly in delineating the controversy that erupted over Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam-era army, the legal maneuvering that following (ending in a disposition of the case by the Supreme Court), and the impact of the legal battle on the fighter’s career. And by extension that takes the documentary into his embrace of the peculiar form of Islam preached by Elijah Muhammad, which he used as justification for his stance—a religion that he seems to have understood only in a most rudimentary sense, but which became a core part of his persona and encouraged public pronouncements that were increasingly belligerent and provocative—as well as some of his actions in the ring that went beyond pugilism to make a statement (like his unnecessary brutalization of Floyd Patterson when he had already effectively won the bout).
Siegel and his editor Aaron Wickenden tie their footage together clearly, and the observations from people like Louis Farrakhan, longtime New York Times journalist Robert Lipsyte, and Ali’s second wife Khalilah add to the visuals rather than just recapitulating them. There’s even some “inside” information offered about the way in which the Supreme Court decision was reached.
Siegel’s documentary doesn’t displace earlier films about Ali, nor does it really succeed in illuminating the man’s inner life—or covering the entirety of his exterior one. But it represents a solid PBS-level treatment of the triumphs and setbacks in the career of a man who challenged American prejudices at a time when they were still very deep and very dangerous.