Home Video Hovel: The Trials of Muhammad Ali, by Aaron Pinkston
In the opening scene of The Trials of Muhammad Ali, we see the icon being introduced as a guest on a talk show, something not uncommon in his life story. But then something interesting happens: television host David Susskind, an important figure in the history of television, refers to Ali as a disgrace, a simplistic fool and a convicted felon. While on this diatribe, the footage holds on Ali’s face, which is full of conflicting emotions, from fear and hopelessness to anger. Many documentaries start at the end and work their way through, showing the viewer “how we got here,” but The Trials of Muhammad Ali uses this particularly well. Given that Ali is such a beloved cultural figure, who has increasingly become looked on as a hero, his battles with the mainstream media and public perception after becoming a conscientious objector has been mostly forgotten. By examining this fascinating period in an already fascinating individual’s life and focusing on particular topics that have taken a backseat to Ali’s incredible personality and sports career, The Trials of Muhammad Ali works around well-trod ground to tell a unique story about a man you thought you already knew.
The film offers an incredible scope on the many issues Muhammad Ali ran across in his life which lead to the events of him refusing to go to Vietnam after being drafted by the U.S. government and his subsequent prosecution. Still, this isn’t just a movie about Muhammad Ali. The film spends a lot of time depicting the culture of the Black Muslim movement in the 1960s, a sub-cultural revolution that isn’t talked about much anymore, even though it was an integral and turbulent a part of Civil Rights movement in whole. Elijah Muhammad, a former leader of the Nation of Islam group and personal influence on Ali, is profiled throughout the film. There is just enough to show how compelling and controversial the man was, but certainly leaves more to be said — if there are any prospective documentary filmmakers out there, here is a ripe subject to consider.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali is particularly insightful when recounting the time Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. The fervor and reluctance to accept the name change by the white media is incredibly telling of the racial and political aggression of the time. Athletes have changed their names before and since (for political or other reasons), which is more typically met with snickering than bigotry — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Metta World Peace, for example, didn’t seem to have the same type of walls put up on them. Even years after changing his name, even after Ali returned to boxing after being banned from the sport, the headlines still referred to him by his “white slave name,” as if the media made it a point to ignore or deny the complex issue.
Ali is remembered as being fast-talking and cocky, really the prime example of a trash-talkin’ hero in sports culture, but through the film we see just how angry he was. Seeing all the coverage of Ali speaking about his belief that all white men are devils is pretty remarkable. I just can’t see a man in his cultural position speaking these views so loudly and today today without being outcasted completely. As is shown in the film and with our knowledge of the institutional struggles of African American men throughout our country’s history, it is understandable that he has these beliefs, but it is difficult to watch. In this way, The Trials of Muhammad Ali doesn’t shy away from the controversial character of its subject, not excusing his attitudes, but showing us how they led him to being persecuted in a court of law and in society.
If you don’t believe that Muhammad Ali is one of the most fascinating figures in the 20th Century, The Trials of Muhammad Ali will change your mind. This is a great documentary made about one of the greatest sportsmen of all time that has almost nothing to do with his sports career. The three-and-a-half year period when Ali was banned from boxing following his felony conviction alone shows what a wild and wacky character he could be. For instance, did you know that Ali starred in a Broadway musical? That aside, The Trials of Muhammad Ali really breaks down the intricate details that led Cassius Clay to become Ali, denounce the war and fight for his beliefs. It might be a forgotten part of Ali’s legacy, but the film really shows that it might be the most part of the man.
The film’s DVD, released by Kino Lorber and Kartemquin Films (who is quickly showing itself to be the premiere documentary production company in the world) has a number of special features that wonderfully complement the feature. First and foremost is “The Mock Trials of Muhammad Ali,” a delightful short film that looks into a number of high school mock trial productions of Ali’s struggles in court. Though it is only seven minutes long, it is full of insights on the core philosophical questions, all from teenagers who were born decades after the true-life events took place. There are also four “deleted scenes,” including Ali’s iconic meeting with The Beatles and a brief interview with John Carlos, who is most known as the Olympic athlete who raised his fist in protest at the podiums. These scenes don’t fit into the film, but they are interesting takes their own. Finally, there are not one, but two, audio commentaries — the first features director Bill Siegel, composer Joshua Abrams and editor Aaron Wickenden, while the second features executive producer Gordon Quinn and journalist Salim Muwakkil. It is rare for a documentary release to have an audio commentary, let alone two, which just shows the care this release was given.