'Ali' Floats Politics, Stings like a Bee

By Harvey, Dennis | Variety, October 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

'Ali' Floats Politics, Stings like a Bee


Harvey, Dennis, Variety


'Ali' Floats Politics, Stings Like a Bee

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

Director: Bill Siegel

With: Rahaman Ali, Gordon Davidson, Louis Farrakhan

Though few athletes seem as widely beloved in retirement, the erstwhile Cassius Clay was once one of the most controversial - and in many quarters loathed - public figures in America. "The Trials of Muhammad Ali" provides a fascinating flashback to that era, when the boxer's personal convictions put him at the center of 1960s debates over civil rights and the Vietnam War. The first solo feature by Bill Siegel, co-director (with Sam Green) of2002's"The Weather Underground," this stirring documentary opened in Los Angeles and five other markets Sept. 27, following a three-week run in New York. It's already booked for a broadcast preem next May on PBS' "Independent Lens."

The drastic change in Ali's public perception is vividly illustrated in an opening one-two punch, as we see him called "a disgrace to his country, his race and his profession" to his face (via satellite, that is) by TV personality David Susskind in 1968, then 37 years later being incongruously awarded the Medal of Freedom by hawkish President George W. Bush.

The direct cause of the earlier insult was Ali's refusal to serve in the Vietnam War, which he described as continuing "the domination of white slave masters over dark people the world over" His conscientious objector claim denied, he was convicted of felony charges for evading military induction, and was out on bail at the time of the Susskind confrontation. While that judgment was finally reversed by the Supreme Court, Ali's sporting career was derailed at its very height.

But as "TYials" shows, the fighter fiad already galled many observers well before this standoff. Debuting as a pro soon after winning a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics, he immediately earned a reputation as a gleeful, quick-witted braggart - behavior not Viewed kindly in an era when successful "Negroes" were expected to be grateful aind deferential.

Ali's public conversion to Islam in 1964 poured gas on the flames, as Supreme Minister Elijah Muhammad's divisive, separatist racial philosophies made the Nation of Islam seem a dangerous cult to many white Americans. …

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