Alright, let’s start here. I fully acknowledge I’m WAY too invested emotionally in this one. So I’m not going to try to tell you this is the ‘best’ of the several great Ali documentaries. It’s easily one of my favorites though.
And why? Because THIS is the one that finally tries to go into detail about ‘the Exile Years’: everyone knows Ali gave up part of his prime because he wouldn’t go to Vietnam. But whereas pretty much all the other stories give you that one line summary in the context of his athletic career as the Greatest, ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’ goes in the other direction, using the boxing career as the dressing in the story of this uniquely American life.
So a lot of the basics of his athletic life is the setup: the boy from Louisville, Olympic gold medalist, supreme confidence from the beginning. While this is going on, the viewer is introduced to the Nation of Islam. Point one for the film: whatever your feelings on the Elijah Muhammad brand of Islam, you (should) get why his teachings struck such a strong chord with urban blacks (among them of course, a young man by the name of Malcolm X). Clay winning the title is near the beginning of the rift between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad; Ali siding with Elijah and Malcolm’s assassination set the stage for the real story of this film.
The Ali of my lifetime is very much a hero, but refusing to go into the Army (even in a symbolic way like Joe Louis), it’s a sacrifice I still can’t imagine. Millions of dollars and the prime of your career. Everyone wants to criticize athletes today for not taking stands like this, but hell, I don’t know many people in any walk of life that principled. Score another point for the film in how it humanized Ali during this stage; he wasn’t an icon just yet, but a still pretty young kid unsure if he was making the right decision. He was a smooth talker promoting fights, but learning how to connect with the college audiences who were often not Muslim or black but who supported his stance; that was a process.
The technicality the Supreme Court used to overturn his conviction (a story I never knew in detail, another point for the film) is really quite hilarious; you have to love lawyers I guess. After that, it’s the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, and, I’m guessing you know the rest.
A must see if you’re any kind of Muhammad Ali fan; the film starts airing on PBS next month.