Monday, October 07, 2013


Well, it is Cultural Monday again.  

Muhammad Ali.  

You have to admit as soon as you read that, something popped into your head.

Whether it was the boxer, the activist,  the draft resister, the Nation of Islam, the man who stood tall against all enemies, the Greatest, something came to mind immediately.

Today we are looking at what many believe is the simply best documentary account of the man ever made.

That says a lot.

At the facebook page, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, we find this:

THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI will delve deeply into a time when an emerging sports superhero chooses faith and conscience over fame and fortune, a period that has been astonishingly overlooked in other Ali film. From his Louisville roots, through his years in exile, to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush, TRIALS traces Ali’s path from pariah to global ambassador for peace. Archival scenes highlight the life forces who support and oppose him, including his spiritual mentors, Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and critics of his stance, such as Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Interviews shot exclusively for the film feature those who were there: his brother, Rahman; his bride, Khalilah Camacho-Ali; New York Times writer, Robert Lipsyte; and Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan. What emerges is the hidden history of Muhammad Ali and an opportunity for audiences worldwide to discover how his trials challenge us to reckon with today’s fissures of race, religion and war.

On their own web page, the filmmakers describe the film this way:

The Trials of Muhammad Ali covers the explosive crossroads of Ali’s life. When Cassius Clay becomes Muhammad Ali, his conversion to Islam and refusal to serve in the Vietnam War leave him banned from boxing and facing a five-year prison sentence. Ali’s choice of belief and conscience over fame and fortune resonates far beyond the boxing ring, striking issues of race, faith and identity that continue to confront us all today.

I think rather than taking up your time with my thoughts on the man or the documentary (which I have not seen), I will instead present you with two review/discussions of the film.  The first is from Dave Zirin at the Nation.  The second is from Prison Culture.

All I can add is that I want to see this.

PS: At the very bottom is a schedule of viewing information.

Knocked the Hell Out by

 'The Trials of Muhammad Ali'

Muhammad Ali carries his son on his shoulders, Aug. 24, 1974. (AP Photo/Bill Ingraham)

I couldn’t stand the Michael Mann film Ali starring Will Smith. The problem was not the script, the cinematography or the pacing. The problem was Will Smith. This is no knock against Mr. Smith. The film’s great flaw is the fact that no one can really play Muhammad Ali except for Muhammad Ali. It feels self-evident to write, but Hollywood, even with all its magic, is incapable of recreating the charisma, physical grace, or tragic glory of the Champ.

That is why Muhammad Ali has always been served better by documentaries than dramatic films. Even when Ali played himself in the 1977 film The Greatest, it was a disaster precisely because the wicked improvisation that marked both his style of speech and boxing were thuddingly absent.

That is also why for my money some of the best sports documentaries have Ali as their central focus. When We Were Kings or Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World are classics and belong on the shortlist of the best sports docs ever made.

I write all this so it’s understood that when I say that The Trials of Muhammad Ali is the best documentary ever made about the most famous draft-resister in human history, you know that I choose those words with extreme care. What makes The Trials of Muhammad Ali, by Academy Award–nominated director Bill (The Weather Underground) Siegel so special, is that it succeeds where so many have failed. Finally we have a film that presents an honest, thorough excavation of Ali’s politics in the 1960s. Siegel, perhaps because he has experience chronicling the often messy movements of that era, is able to communicate Ali’s journey of rebellion against racism and war with nuance and without a hint of condescension.

Other films have discussed Ali’s allegiance to the Nation of Islam, but I can’t think of another film that delves as deeply into why a separatist group like the NOI would be attractive to Ali. Siegel, always off camera, interviews actual members of the NOI who were active in the 1960s to discuss what Ali’s presence meant to their organization. Other films have shown how Ali was a target of derision in the mainstream press for joining the NOI and refusing to serve in Vietnam. But I’ve never seen so much footage of people across the political spectrum—from William Buckley to David Susskind—excoriating Ali in televised settings with the Champ having to sit in a suit and seethe. Other films have discussed how Ali was sentenced to five years for evading the draft, a sentence that was eventually overturned by the United States Supreme Court, but I’ve never seen it examined to such a precise degree. This is the heart of Siegel’s film, and it’s explained in great detail why the Supreme Court—that supposedly apolitical body—desperately searched for a reason, no matter how paper thin, to overturn his sentence.

Other films have discussed Ali’s antiwar activism, but I’ve never seen such a bounty of new footage of Ali expressing his antiwar feelings in his own words. That’s truly what made The Trials of Muhammad Ali impress itself upon me like a stiff left jab. I like to consider myself someone who has studied Ali’s life. But I’d never laid eyes on most of what Siegel has unearthed. For example Ali-o-philes know that when he was banned from boxing in 1968, he starred in an extremely short-lived Broadway musical called Buck White. Actually seeing footage of his performance is alone worth the price of admission.

I do have criticisms of the film. Given the amount of time Siegel devotes to the Nation of Islam, I wish he had discussed in greater detail Ali’s separation from Malcolm X when Malcolm left the NOI, as well as the period in Ali’s life in 1969 when the NOI suspended him from membership, writing, “Mr. Muhammad Ali shall not be recognized with us under the holy name Muhammad Ali. We will call him Cassius Clay.” Their reasons for such action are confusing to this day, and I would have loved to see the implications of this in both the NOI and the broader movement explored.*

But that nitpick is like complaining about the picture frame on a genius work of art. This is a special film. It should be treasured by anyone who cares about sports, politics, the 1960s or the vivacious, loquacious, bodacious, Muhammad Ali. There are those I’m sure who will always believe that no film could possibly do Ali and his era justice. They should on principle see The Trials of Muhammad Ali, and then, humbled, find Bill Siegel and say his name.

* I was able to ask Mr. Siegel at a screening in New York why he didn’t unpack this part of Ali’s life and he answered that it was addressed but ended up, with a great deal else, on the cutting-room floor. Now I’m giddily counting the days to the DVD release so I can see all the extras.

Forgivable Blackness? Muhammad Ali’s 

Trials, Oppression, AND  Social Acceptance

I watched the excellent documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” by director Bill Siegel a few weeks ago. When it comes to a theatre in your town or city, I highly recommend that you see it. Dave Zirin wrote a very good review of the film in the Nation Magazine. You should read it for a synopsis of the documentary.

Muhammad Ali by Gordon Parks (1970)
Muhammad Ali by Gordon Parks (1970)
I’d like to address some larger issues that were raised for me as I watched the film. The documentary is mostly about young Ali. He is beautiful. His sense of humor and genial personality come across very clearly. The film covers new ground as it delves into Ali’s relationship with the Nation of Islam (NOI) and his court trials for refusing to join the military when he was drafted.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of the NOI to someone like Ali. The overt expression of racial pride evident in Black Muslim ideology and teachings was surely a draw. At a time when Black was not yet beautiful to find a community that affirmed your humanity and worth would have been and still is enticing. The emphasis on self-discipline and self-determination might have been an attraction as well for Ali, the athlete. Most importantly perhaps was Malcolm X who was the embodiment of confident black manhood for so many. So often, marginalized people are expected to define ourselves through negation. In other words, we are NOT lazy, we are NOT criminal. It’s much more difficult to self-define through a positive affirmation of our qualities. We ARE loving, we ARE resilient, we ARE human. Malcolm was a master at self-definition through positive affirmation and for this he was loved & respected.

As a black person watching the film and hearing Ali call out the people who he saw as his oppressors, I could feel pride and satisfaction at his truth-telling. Yet, I have to admit to wondering what white people watching the film are appreciating about the man. How are they able to absorb and reconcile his confident, unapologetic blackness? In America, blackness is usually punished and contained. As someone on Twitter with the handle @freshestmhizha mentioned, “Black culture is popular, black people are not.” So it can’t be Ali’s embodied blackness that white people are celebrating. What is it then?

The Ali of today is feeble and ill with Parkinson’s disease. There have been several false reports of his impending or actual death. In other words, Ali is not a threat to white supremacy anymore. This no doubt makes it easier for white audiences to countenance and ultimately to forgive Ali’s blackness. After all, they are aware that they are watching history from a safe distance.

When Ali was in his prime, he was clearly considered as a threat by the U.S. government (his FBI file will likely confirm this posthumously). He came to public attention in the 60s during a time when there was real fear within the government of a domestic black insurgency. Ali had to be neutralized and the government found its mechanism when he refused to serve in Vietnam saying that it was against his religious beliefs to participate in a war. Ali’s thoughts on his conscientious objection to military service are encapsulated in the following words (some of which we get to see and hear him speak in archival footage in the film):

“I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home. “

Upon refusing to be drafted, Ali transforms from an admired athlete to a convicted felon. LikeJack Johnson decades earlier, he is “unforgivably black.” He is stripped of his heavyweight titles and ends up penniless. In order to support himself and his family, he has to embark on a series of speeches at colleges across the country. When he finally “wins” the right to return to boxing, it’s based on a legal technicality by the U.S. Supreme Court. He is never officially “vindicated” in his decision to refuse to fight in Vietnam. The film underscores the roles available to black men in the 60s. They could be athletes, soldiers, or felons.

When the documentary officially opens in Chicago, I will invite some young black men to see it with me. I am curious about who they will “see” when they watch a larger-than-life Ali filling the screen. Will they see themselves in his brashness or not? Will they be more likely to identify with Jackie Robinson who appears in the film to denounce Ali’s decision against serving in Vietnam? Will they too be struck by Ali’s unapologetic blackness or will they see something else?

I am curious.

Stay tuned…


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