Rope-a-Dope, by Craig Schroeder
Muhammad Ali has become more of an ideology than a man. Like Robert Johnson or Maximilian Robespierre, his actual existence doesn’t matter as much as what his existence has come to represent. The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a documentary that looks to define how Muhammad Ali, as an ideology, is informed by Muhammad Ali as a human. Unfortunately, the film unfolds like an episode of E! True Hollywood Story, highlighting the salacious details but never really providing any substantive insight into his life.
The documentary, directed by Bill Siegel, isn’t a bad film, but it’s also not incredibly ground breaking. The titular trials refer to the familial and cultural reaction to Ali’s conversion to Islam, his relationship with controversial political figures like Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, as well as his actual trial for being a conscientious objector to the U.S. Selective Service. Unfortunately, the film, at a modest ninety-two minutes, never delves too deeply into any of this and ends up rehashing the lesson plans of a sixth grade history teacher.
The film is at it’s strongest when it’s interviewing compelling figures in Ali’s life, however’s it’s at its weakest when it doesn’t allow them the weight they deserve. Ali’s brother, Rahman Ali (nèe Rudolph Clay) and his second wife Kalilah Ali are the most interesting interviews, though I get the since that Siegel couldn’t see that. Rahman Ali, is a large man with a speech impediment, who looks strikingly similar to his brother. He is immediately likable and sympathetic and holds the same kind of reverence for his brother (often referring to him as “The Champ”) that I hold towards Stan Musial and the 1946 St. Louis Cardinals. Khalil Ali also reveres her former husband, but in a different way than Rahman; she obviously knew Ali at his most vulnerable and, of all the interview subjects, has the most balanced perspective of Ali, “The Legend”, and Ali, “The Man”. But sadly, neither Rahman Ali nor Kalilah Ali, despite having a lot of screen time, are given the opportunity to fully articulate their relationship with Muhammad Ali. Instead, Siegel often cuts away to give more screen time than necessary to recognizable faces like Louis Farrakhan, who is captivating in his own right, but doesn’t give as compelling testimony on Ali’s life
What The Trials of Muhammad Ali does right is recognize the charisma of Muhammad Ali and allow him to speak for himself. Mixed in with the subpar interviews are some pretty wonderful archival footage. In a particularly memorable moment, Ali is testifying in court when a particularly condescending politician continues to refer to him by his recently abandoned “slave name”: Cassius Clay. “Muhammad Ali, sir!” he repeatedly yells until the man begins addressing him by the adopted moniker. Muhammad Ali’s charm and wit is able to lift the film when it drags and can articulate in one or two sentences what the film can’t over the course of an hour and a half.
The most compelling aspect of the film, and Ali’s life, is Ali’s relationship with the Nation of Islam and it’s famed leaders Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. When a schism separated the two camps, Ali sided with the former. Ali’s relationship with the Prophet Elijah Muhammad is murky and complicated and the film is unable and often unwilling to inspect it, for fear of exposing Ali’s vulnerabilities. The film paints Ali as both a malleable pawn to Elijah Muhammad and the surrogate-son and cultural successor to the Prophet. Though aspects of both are probably true, The Trials of Muhammad Ali doesn’t seem interested in inspecting their relationship further.
My biggest issue, and the hardest to articulate, is the film’s depiction of the Muhammad Ali of today, ravaged by Parkinson’s disease. It seems strange that in reviewing a film about Muhammad Ali, I would gripe about it’s depiction of Parkinson’s, which has becoming a defining part of Ali’s life; but my problem is that Parkinson’s Disease is not a defining part of the film. In fact, it’s mentioned only once, incidentally. The film shows latter day Muhammad Ali only twice. First, it opens with Muhammad Ali accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush, which is a great choice and provides perspective on how Ali is viewed today compared to how he was viewed in the sixties. But near the end of the film, Siegel chooses to reintroduce this stock footage, but inserts long, lingering shots of the once virile athlete, hunched and shaking. It’s immediately jarring and feels exploitative, as if the film is co-opting sympathy for Muhammad Ali and using it to manipulate how the audience feels towards the film itself.
Muhammad Ali was and still is charismatic. The Trials of Muhammad Ali is not. The film is serviceable as a special that runs on ESPN Classic once a year on Ali’s birthday or the anniversary of a seminal bout; but as a film that strives to be more than that, it often comes up short. The film wants so badly to reveal the Man behind the Myth; but it just can’t help trafficking in the Myth before the Man.