Anyone who is involved in the opening gala of the British Urban Film Festival (Buff2014) all have the same line when discussing the film: Forget everything that you think that you know about Muhammad Ali…
The documentary from Bill Seigel (who worked as researcher on the legendary Hoop Dreams) moves away from the obvious narrative of Muhammad Ali as a legendary boxer and instead changes the focus to his life as one of America’s crucial political dissidents.
In 1964, having maintained an undefeated professional streak, Ali nonetheless shocked the sport and became world famous when he won the world heavyweight championship title. Shortly after this he dropped his previous “slave name” of Cassius Clay and started following the teaching of Elijah Muhammad from the Nation of Islam. From then on he would openly refer to himself as a peaceful Muslim, preaching its message of peace right up until a TV interview just 10 days after 9/11.
The focus is mainly on his years after converting to radical Islam, which led him to be vilified for refusing the draft to fight in Vietnam. He became a conscientious objector in light of his newfound religion and was put on a trial that would eventually lead all of the way up to the Supreme Court. Without explaining the whole trial, needless to say that given the racism of the time and his confrontational character he was persecuted with the full force of White American animosity…
A fascinating insight in the film was the difference in styles between the ‘Southern agrarian’ Christian Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the more metropolitan and urbane political Islam led by Malcolm X. The former group famously fought inequality through non-violent protest towards racial integration, whereas the latter group (Ali included) were preaching segregation as the future path for Black American prosperity.
There is amazing footage of Ali, channeling the language of Elijah Muhammad, confronting TV heavyweights like William F. Buckley and David Frost and telling them that “the white man is the devil” straight to their faces. Later in his domestic exile years he made confrontational university campus tours to make money – here again he preached that white people and black people were enemies, even making it on to the FBI’s radar as a ‘rabble-rouser’. In todays climate he’d probably be refused a visa to enter the UK on religious extremist grounds….
One of the most compelling theories in the film is the evolving representation for mainstream Americans of the Nation of Islam versus the more ‘traditional’ Islam. In the ‘60s and the days of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam was seen by most of Christian America as a dangerous and radical cult offshoot of the more peaceful ‘Arabic’ Islam. Whereas now, in the wake of 9/11, ‘traditional’ Islam is seen as apocalyptic and brutal as opposed to the pacifist and “domesticated” Nation of Islam. Whatever preconceptions viewers might have about different religions and acts undertaken in its name, it is provocative (and refreshing) to hear in 2014 such emphasis on Islam as fundamentally a doctrine of peace.
As insightful as all of the social and political aspects of the film are, there is no denying that the viewing enjoyment mostly comes from Ali’s inimitable charisma. He is a born entertainer and just a very funny guy. If you needed further proof then just wait for the footage of his debut on Broadway in a short lived musical called Buck White…
Equal parts poignant, infuriating, touching and hilarious – The Trials Of Muhammad Ali is the definitive work a living legend. The greatest irony of the film is that although he became famous as an enigmatic fighter, his enduring legacy will be that of a peaceful conscientious objector.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali will play again on Sunday night of the BUFF festival - tickets available here