“There are so many ways of looking at him that have only to do with us and have nothing to do with him.”
That quote, which comes late in The Trials of Muhammad Ali, sums up a great point about documentaries on iconic figures overall. In fact, it’s probably even more relevant to another new film out this month, Our Nixon, which has been received positively and negatively by people based on their feelings about the former U.S. president and his administration. Ali’s legacy isn’t even close to being dictated by the passionate feelings of his fans and his foes, but viewers will have an image in their head of who he is before sitting down to watch a movie about him.
Has the boxer’s status as a legend and hero and national treasure remained damaged by his conversion to Islam and his stance against the Vietnam War almost half a century later? I guess I can’t know the answer to this without asking a lot of people, but this documentary arrives as if to be a response to continued disapproval or, at the very least, disregard for the once heavyweight champion. There is no direct statement of this kind, however, which would probably require mention of his early ’80s bouts as another major reason for the world to no longer consider him to be “the greatest.”
Much of the film aims to put Ali back up on a lofty pedestal, mainly in defense of choices he made throughout the 1960s, particularly his becoming a Muslim and changing his name from Cassius Clay and his refusal to be drafted for military service, citing the new religious beliefs as the reason. The trials of the title include his legal battle against the U.S. government, which sentenced Ali to five years in prison for draft evasion, but it also fits the rest of his tribulations suffered through life, including the public scrutiny received for his controversial decisions.
Director Bill Siegel’s selection of interviewees includes more than handful of seemingly unconditional supporters, including Ali’s brother, one of his daughters, the last surviving member of his management team and even an ex-wife who ultimately focuses on his “good aura” and her good memories of him. This is the stuff of hagiographic celebration. There’s not much room for details as to why that wife (his second) became his ex (it was his longtime infidelity, with the woman who became his third wife), or how good or bad a father he was. And due to the absence of Ali himself it’s as if they’re talking about him posthumously.
If I thought The Trials of Muhammad Ali was a biographical film, the overly exalting angle on the boxer’s convictions might warrant more criticism. But it’s instead a history of the man — and with famous figures there can be that distinction — centered on a specific time of his life and a specific part of his persona. This isn’t a portrait of Ali as much as it is a telling of certain events and how they fit into a bigger picture, as well as how that picture fits into his story.
That’s how the film can additionally be about the Nation of Islam in the 1960s, not simply Ali’s relationship with it. And it can feature track and field legend John Carlos and point to his and Tommie Smith’s famous Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. And it be altogether a larger consideration of racial and ideological protest during that era. Interviewees who aren’t there to offer personal anecdotes provide strong oral histories involving Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, as they are relative to Ali’s life, yes, but also simply as they were.
That the film is centrally about Ali also contributes to how the film is, on another level, about the attention celebrity status can bring to a cause or a Broadway play or a documentary. Ali is shown throughout the film as having been used as an example, which is why he believed his draft status was changed, because of who he was, and why his claim of conscientious objection put the concept on the map and why his case was special compared to that of others in the same situation.
In so far as this is a historical documentary, it’s refreshing to not see the common faults of such films about this period. Siegel, who earned an Oscar nomination for co-directing and producing The Weather Underground, doesn’t waste space with the usual, cliche stock footage of Vietnam and undefined shots of random protests in the streets. Every bit of material appears to be directly relevant. It helps that there is much archival footage of Ali to use, but even with access to and allotment of tons of footage many filmmakers still include familiar filler. I don’t know for sure how much here is previously unseen content, but it all definitely feels fresh while also being entirely essential.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali doesn’t come across as a whole as necessary as The Weather Underground — perhaps because it’s about a more famous subject — nor as exciting as the more sports-focused Oscar winner When We Were Kings (the director of which, Leon Gast, is a producer on this film). But given that we do already have a few Ali films, including two dramatic biopics, one of which starred the boxer as himself, this is fortunately a distinct and important and engaging and well crafted and focused work to add to the pile. It’s a look at a history by way of Ali, and it’s a look at Ali by way of history, and it’s one of the best docs I’d claim to have learned something from all year.