Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: The Trials of Muhammad Ali

An invigorating doc brings a long-forgotten controversy to life.

Aug 22, 2013

-By John DeFore


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1383608-Trials_Ali_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Singling out the most dramatic period in a career that was never short on color, Bill Siegel's The Trials of Muhammad Ali focuses on a time not only before Ali's iconic status was assured, but when even the fame brought by his 1960 Olympic gold medal was in danger of being overshadowed by the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding his embrace of Islam. The film captures the thrill of Ali's personality even for viewers with little interest in the sweet science, and is meaty enough to merit art-house bookings on its way to small screens.

Siegel starts his film in savvy fashion, contrasting a poignant scene from the height of Ali's infamy—a British chat show on which he sits calmly while David Susskind declares, "I find nothing...tolerable about this man...a simplistic fool and a pawn"—with the sight, decades later, of George W. Bush awarding him the Medal of Freedom.

Both Ali and America changed in the years between those episodes, but Trials is most interested in what could provoke reactions like Susskind's, especially given how warmly the boxer was embraced at first. In a few well-chosen clips, we are reminded how Cassius Clay won fans at the start of his career, and how charismatic he could be when interviewed. We learn a bit about his Louisville youth and the team of eleven white investors who backed his professional aspirations, but the real story begins when Clay, working in Miami, grows increasingly interested in the Nation of Islam.

Interviewing men like "Captain Sam," a close friend during this period, Siegel shows how fully the athlete embraced the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and how incensed he was when, after he was given his new name, boxing opponents refused to use it. New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte, who covered Ali for years, recalls the "truly terrible moment in the history of boxing" when Ali made a point of punishing Floyd Patterson in the ring, beating him beyond the point where the fight should've ended.

(The lighter side of Clay's transformation into Ali comes via Khalilah Camacho-Ali, who recalls meeting the man she would later marry and tearing up the autograph he had just given her, telling Cassius Clay he needed to learn his true identity.)

Siegel, who as co-director of The Weather Underground proved adept at capturing the cultural/political flavor of a moment in history, does so again here—bringing to life not just Ali's fervent (some say unsophisticated) espousal of Nation of Islam dogma and his response to the falling out between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, but the way the nation's shifting mood made Ali's rejection of the draft a seemingly fatal PR move.

Siegel's film follows the literal trials that followed—with Ali receiving a five-year prison sentence that would be overturned years later by the Supreme Court—but is more interested in the effect legal and reputation issues had on Ali's livelihood: Rejected by state boxing commissions, he tried setting up bouts everywhere from Alcatraz to a stripped-out airliner that would fly above states' jurisdictions.

Trials has a lot to juggle during years when Ali kept afloat with speaking engagements and side gigs (including a strange quasi-musical play, seen briefly here), and the doc's focus briefly turns hazy. Glossing over the fighter's return to the ring and the decades since, the film touches on the evolution of Ali's racial ideology—which at one point was so rigid he told an interviewer that he truly believed all white people were devils—without getting into specifics.

But the film mostly ignores the question of how America came back around to idolizing him, letting a few images do the talking. Closing footage of Ali—made shaky by Parkinson's but still regal—lighting the Olympic torch in 1996 is more moving than any talking-head testimony could be.
-The Hollywood Reporter


Film Review: The Trials of Muhammad Ali

An invigorating doc brings a long-forgotten controversy to life.

Aug 22, 2013

-By John DeFore


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1383608-Trials_Ali_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Singling out the most dramatic period in a career that was never short on color, Bill Siegel's The Trials of Muhammad Ali focuses on a time not only before Ali's iconic status was assured, but when even the fame brought by his 1960 Olympic gold medal was in danger of being overshadowed by the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding his embrace of Islam. The film captures the thrill of Ali's personality even for viewers with little interest in the sweet science, and is meaty enough to merit art-house bookings on its way to small screens.

Siegel starts his film in savvy fashion, contrasting a poignant scene from the height of Ali's infamy—a British chat show on which he sits calmly while David Susskind declares, "I find nothing...tolerable about this man...a simplistic fool and a pawn"—with the sight, decades later, of George W. Bush awarding him the Medal of Freedom.

Both Ali and America changed in the years between those episodes, but Trials is most interested in what could provoke reactions like Susskind's, especially given how warmly the boxer was embraced at first. In a few well-chosen clips, we are reminded how Cassius Clay won fans at the start of his career, and how charismatic he could be when interviewed. We learn a bit about his Louisville youth and the team of eleven white investors who backed his professional aspirations, but the real story begins when Clay, working in Miami, grows increasingly interested in the Nation of Islam.

Interviewing men like "Captain Sam," a close friend during this period, Siegel shows how fully the athlete embraced the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and how incensed he was when, after he was given his new name, boxing opponents refused to use it. New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte, who covered Ali for years, recalls the "truly terrible moment in the history of boxing" when Ali made a point of punishing Floyd Patterson in the ring, beating him beyond the point where the fight should've ended.

(The lighter side of Clay's transformation into Ali comes via Khalilah Camacho-Ali, who recalls meeting the man she would later marry and tearing up the autograph he had just given her, telling Cassius Clay he needed to learn his true identity.)

Siegel, who as co-director of The Weather Underground proved adept at capturing the cultural/political flavor of a moment in history, does so again here—bringing to life not just Ali's fervent (some say unsophisticated) espousal of Nation of Islam dogma and his response to the falling out between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, but the way the nation's shifting mood made Ali's rejection of the draft a seemingly fatal PR move.

Siegel's film follows the literal trials that followed—with Ali receiving a five-year prison sentence that would be overturned years later by the Supreme Court—but is more interested in the effect legal and reputation issues had on Ali's livelihood: Rejected by state boxing commissions, he tried setting up bouts everywhere from Alcatraz to a stripped-out airliner that would fly above states' jurisdictions.

Trials has a lot to juggle during years when Ali kept afloat with speaking engagements and side gigs (including a strange quasi-musical play, seen briefly here), and the doc's focus briefly turns hazy. Glossing over the fighter's return to the ring and the decades since, the film touches on the evolution of Ali's racial ideology—which at one point was so rigid he told an interviewer that he truly believed all white people were devils—without getting into specifics.

But the film mostly ignores the question of how America came back around to idolizing him, letting a few images do the talking. Closing footage of Ali—made shaky by Parkinson's but still regal—lighting the Olympic torch in 1996 is more moving than any talking-head testimony could be.
-The Hollywood Reporter
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

Bicycling with Moliere
Film Review: Bicycling with Moliere

This sly, witty, charming comedic contemporary study of a fraught friendship between two actors hoping to mount a Molière classic is also a ride through France’s beautiful Ile de Ré island. More »

Locke
Film Review: Locke

Taut, disturbing and unique drama about a man racing toward his destiny, providing Tom Hardy, literally, with a vehicle to flaunt his acting chops. More »

Small Time
Film Review: Small Time

You might not buy a used car from the guys in Small Time, but you will enjoy the movie about their exploits, even their exploitations (of others). More »

Fading Gigolo
Film Review: Fading Gigolo

Some top screen talent gets lost in the silliness surrounding the amorous adventures of an unlikely gigolo and his even more unlikely pimp, with writer/director/actor John Turturro the shtupper “ho” co-starring with Woody Allen as the mercenary shtup-enabler. Yarmulkes off to Turturro’s brave but deeply ill-conceived comedic foray into Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic community and other alien territory. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Transcendence
Film Review: Transcendence

Johnny Depp is an idealistic researcher whose consciousness is uploaded into an artificial intelligence in this slick techno-thriller with delusions of seriousness from Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer. More »

Draft Day
Film Review: Draft Day

Pro football manager faces crises on the most important day of his career in a well-tooled vehicle for Kevin Costner. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here