Muhammad Ali walks with members of the Black Panther Party in a clip from 'The Trials of Muhammad Ali.' (David Fenton / Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali was pretty much at the center of two storms of unrest in the 1960s.
The first was the civil rights movement; the second was the anti-war movement. Toss in the fact that Ali converted to Islam and worked the edges of black radicalism at the time and it’s no wonder he became the most controversial sports figure of a generation.
The real wonder, as shown clearly in the documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” is not that he survived the uproar, it’s that he thrived in adversity and grew as both a human being and a public figure.
And, oh yeah, he was pretty good at boxing.
Using classic footage — Ali knew how to play to a camera and use the media from an early age — and interviews with many people close to Ali at the time, including his brother, director Bill Siegel (“The Weather Underground”) starts with the young Cassius Clay, coming home to Louisville after winning Olympic gold. Mouthy in public while polite in private, his career is backed by consortium of local white businessmen.
Good investment. By the time he’s 22, Clay is the heavyweight champion of the world, famous for his supreme confidence in the ring and out. But he’s also keenly aware of discrimination. In search of structure, he joins the Nation of Islam, a black separatist group led by the charismatic and controversial Elijah Muhammad. And he changes his name to Muhammad Ali.
The media and public are stunned. This major sports figure begins denouncing white oppression. He travels the world but mostly goes to Muslim countries. Papers and magazines continue to refer to him as Cassius Clay, as if he’s just going through a phase.
When the United States sees fit to draft Ali, he decides to apply for conscientious objector status, reasoning that he doesn’t want to go overseas to Vietnam to fight another ethnic group on behalf of the white man. When his application is rejected, he’s stripped of his title and essentially banned from boxing while he awaits five years in prison.
He appeals his case and it slowly works its way up to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, to support himself and his family, he takes to the lecture circuit. And what has been a very sheltered and focused life from the time he was young begins opening up. Hesitant, inarticulate and strident at first, he becomes capable and then able to spar verbally with the best.
The views of the then Nation of Islam (which have mellowed considerably since) are jarring to the modern ear; what must they have sounded like coming from a sports hero in the mid-’60s? But the strength of Ali’s conviction — he could likely have landed a cushy gig in the service and avoided battle — is what drives this film, as it did the man himself. He came within a whisper of losing fame and fortune, but he never faltered. There’s a reason he’s still called The Greatest.
As with the best stories, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” puts one man’s story within a greater context. This is Ali’s story, but it’s America’s story, too. Here, it’s well told.
'The Trials of Muhammad Ali'
Running time: 86 minutes
7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4:30 p.m. Sunday