The Trials of Muhammad Ali Screen 8 articles

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

2013

The Trials of Muhammad Ali Poster
  • With his inspired use of archival footage, Siegel not only bolsters his case with vintage clips of Ali's famous pronouncements and his detractors' counterclaims, but mixes in some surprises as well (the champ acting in a Broadway musical about the Middle Passage). Still, the film never lingers too long on any one thing, instead functioning as a survey in which several fascinating cultural moments are vividly evoked, but then left insufficiently probed.

  • By zooming in on only, it often seems, Ali's weaker moments, and not many of his brightest, director Bill Siegel inadvertently makes Ali's integrity seem more like futile stubbornness and nearly equates Ali's religious beliefs, which here are justified with only racial explanations, to being brainwashed.

  • The film falls short of explaining Mr. Ali, who, like many outspoken individuals, can stubbornly repel scrutiny, nor will it pacify the many who opposed his conscientious objections. But it also underlines one enduring quality: namely, that he probably couldn’t care less what people think.

  • Siegel’s portrait makes the well-worn case for Ali being, perhaps inadvertently, one of the Civil Rights era’s most potent figures. He was also, as Jerry Lewis is quoted, “the damnedest showman that ever lived,” and more than one film (including 1996’s When We Were Kings) is needed to capture the man’s volcanic star power and media-taunting nerve.

  • Assembled in retrospect, it is easier to see these hassles for what they were, and the image of Ali the angry, militant figure seemingly shadowboxing at vast conspiracies to hold him down, now looks rational and shrewd. By the same token, the film’s greatest achievement is restoring some of the radical context to a man who long ago became a universally beloved icon.

  • Ali presented sports as theater, politics as theater, theater as theater. This movie makes you feel his radicalism all over again. Whenever athletes declare themselves the greatest, it feels somehow like a mockery of the complexity of Ali’s greatness. His progeny’s self-obsession differs from Ali’s self-regard. It’s punier. This isn’t to say Ali didn’t have a brand to promote and protect. He did. But his brand was humanity.

  • As a documentary, and an expertly paced one at that, it provides a happy medium between expansive legend and centralized nuance. Siegel already exhibited such skill as co-director of the Academy Award-nominated THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND (2002), and his representation of Ali as something of an activist calls back to that first film.

  • Trials abounds with archival riches from Ali's pariah era, clips that show the Champ trying to stay financially solvent after his boxing ban and proving his indefatigability no matter how scorned: on the college lecture circuit, on talk shows (like WGBH's Say Brother), and on Broadway (playing the lead, in extravagant Afro and facial hair, in Buck White).

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