[THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI screens Friday October 18th at 7:00 pm and Sunday October 20th at 1:30 pm at the Cleveland Museum of Art.]
Review by Bob Ignizio
It's an image of an all-American hero with appeal across racial
and generational lines, but it leaves a lot out. Notably it omits the
early years and struggles that Ali went through to get to that point.
It is those early years that the documentary THE TRIALS OF
MUHAMMAD ALI (produced and
directed by Bill Siegel) looks at, with the primary focus on how a
young Olympic gold medalist by the name of Cassius Clay found his way
into the Nation of Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and
seemingly threw away his career by refusing to serve in Viet Nam.
These early years in Ali's life
are crucial to who he was and why he mattered, and show how a person
can evolve their thinking over time while still maintaining
integrity. One can disagree with some of the positions Ali took at
the time, whether it be going along with Elijah Muhammad's belief
that all white people were “devils”, or his refusal to be
drafted, but it is impossible to deny his courage or convictions.
It's also fascinating to see the
attitudes of various cultural figures at the time. The film begins
with a particularly caustic assessment of Ali by Hollywood producer
David Suskind, and we hear other voices both white and black
(including some members of Ali's own family) state their disapproval
for what he is doing. We do also hear from some of those who were on
his side, including Martin Luther King, Jr., but overall public
opinion was pretty negative for a man who just a few years later
would be so widely beloved.
And then there's the actual
court case determining whether Ali is legitimately a conscientious
objector which went all the way to the Supreme Court. I don't think
it's much of a spoiler to say that Ali didn't have to go to jail for
his beliefs, but the particular way in which that decision was
reached is quite interesting. So is this movie, and anyone with an
interest in American history should see it. The film is scheduled to
air on PBS stations as part of their POV series, but films often tend
to be edited down to an hour to fit in a time slot. This one should
be seen in its full length version if possible. 4 out of 4 stars.