I remember talking to a friend of mine about Muhammad Ali once, and he mentioned the nuttiness of the Ernie Terrell fight in 1967. About three years prior to that match, Ali had joined the Nation of Islam and officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Leading up to that fight, Terrell kept referring to him as Cassisus Clay like Floyd Patterson had done previously. (Ali beat Patterson into a pulp in his second heavyweight title defense).
Ali pummeled Terrell during their fight, prolonging the pain and keeping him on his feet without a merciful coup de grace. Occasionally after a haymaker or flurry, Ali would shout a question to his dazed opponent: “What’s my name?!“
It was badass but undeniably brutal, and it was part of what made Ali a kind of heel with the public. The Trials of Muhammad Ali looks at this period when Ali was one of the most reviled men in America. In this fine portrait of that time, I got a sense that Ali simply went with the flow of social history since he was the right age for it, and he wound up on the right side of world history for the courage of his convictions.
[This review was originally published as part of our 2013 Tribeca Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted and expanded to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
The Trials of Muhammad Ali
Director: Bill Siegel
Release Date: August 23, 2013
Director Bill Siegel sets up a dichotomy at the beginning of the documentary. In old television footage from the mid-1960s, Ali is excoriated as a disgrace to his country; in footage from 2005, Ali receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that a civilian can receive. For those who never lived through the era or perhaps only know Ali by the fondess and adoration that’s heaped on him today, the two sides of Ali are striking. This is not the legend but a social pariah, and one deemed un-American.
The root of this hatred in Ali at the time came from his religious and political awakening in the mid-60s, much of it due to his association with the Nation of Islam. In chronicling Ali and the Nation of Islam, Siegel notes the group’s political dimension, which tended to outweigh its religious practices. There’s another striking dichotomy toward the end of the film: in the 1960s, the public at large considered the Nation of Islam a threat while traditional Muslims were deemed okay; today the opposite seems the case.
As a young man defining his identity, Ali aligns with the Nation of Islam to assert his blackness. He changes his name as part of this act of self-empowerment and reinvention. This must have seemed radical at the time, but a comfortable historical distance allows us to understand the whole scope of such reclamations of identity and why they’re part of the process of social change. The country was in the thick of the civil rights movement and discrimination was the law throughout much of the South. The desire to change a name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali is the same sort of desire that led James Brown to sing “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
This impulse also led Ali to take a stance against Vietnam. He refuses to serve because he’s a conscientious objector on religious grounds. The patriotic fervor to eradicate communism was still rampant, and so Ali was barred from boxing. In the years he’s not permitted to fight, Ali took to the road as a public speaker. Without these events, Ali may not have become the Ali that’s loved today, and Siegel takes time to explore this journey. Clay was reborn as Ali as part of his spiritual quest, and thanks his exile from the ring, Ali would be reborn as a champion rather than a villain.
What’s interesting is that The Trials of Muhammad Ali doesn’t quite present a full or obvious comeback arc–we don’t wind up at The Rumble in the Jungle like Michael Mann’s Ali. Instead there’s surprising nuance to the legal case against Ali. (He’s not just being tried by the public, there’s a legal appeal to the Supreme Court as well.) It’s like a win by points, and not a resounding one, but it allows for Ali’s return to the ring, and for the public to start seeing him with new eyes.
While part of me still wonders how this change in public perception came about, there’s a chain of cause and effect that’s there, much of which Siegel suggests in footage and new interviews. This is a combination of multiple things, like the evolving face of the Vietnam War, the birth of Ali’s charismatic image, the civil rights victories, the losses to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton prior to the Rumble in the Jungle. Mostly it might be about America’s love for the comeback kid, both in sports and in public life–the country loves a person who can take a punch and keep standing, proud.