Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Trials of Muhammad Ali, director, Bill Siegel, on Independent Lens, Monday, April 14, 2014

Khalilah Camacho-Ali
Bill Siegel's Trials of Muhammad Ali shows an evolution of consciousness rarely if ever seen when looking at an iconic figure, in this case the greatest boxer of the twentieth century Muhammad Ali. In this story of Ali, Siegel crafts a tale that without preconception allows his audience an opportunity to enter the Nation of Islam Ali as Cassius Clay did. We meet the influential men in young Ali's life, his financial supporters -- a Louisville, Kentucky powerhouse and a spiritual support network under the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. With candid interviews with NOI leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, Ali's older brother, Rahman, his former first wife, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, his daughter by a later marriage, and others including much of Ali via archival newsreel, we see a very different picture of Ali emerge.
Ali and El Hajj Malik El Shabazz

Muhammad Ali
Sharp and on point within and without the ring, Ali as a youth is impressionable and smart--his relationship with his first wife, who though younger, gave him excellent guidance which Ali listened to. These are some of the more poignant parts of the film. I love the courtship and genuine love between the couple and that of his brother, Malcolm X, and admiration of others including the Elijah Muhammad.

Ali's trials start long before the one that strips him of his title--it starts when he changes his name and joins the NOI, when he decides to take the less traveled path, the one where he is his own man--a free thinker, independent. The media doesn't like his choice and later he is made to pay -- financially and morally when he refuses to go to war. The slander is unbelievable. I wonder if such would be allowed today.

Farrakhan says Ali's says to him, "Still a N-gger," today, at the height of his career and reputation. What does he mean?

Ali's decision to be a conscientious objector is a choice Martin King supports despite religious differences. This is an important point, because it shows that the division imposed philosophically between Malcolm X and Martin King was just that, an imposition which had no reality. It was more a divide and conquer tactic by the enemy of peace and justice. The way the scene is set up here, King's killing seems directly linked to his position on the unjust war.

The suffering this court ordered refusal to allow Ali to box and Ali's move into public speaking and worldwide travel is a very interesting part of the film as is the court's final decision about whether Ali would be sent to prison or the case dismissed. We see Ali grow or mature into his public persona as he engages college students at home and heads of governments abroad.

We have all heard about Ali's refusal to go to Vietnam. I hadn't realized that his leader, the Hon. Elijah Muhammad had also been a conscientious objector. I also hadn't known that Ali's life was threatened, his house set on fire the same day as Malcolm X's assassination.

Through it all, Ali is as witty and quick thinking in response to propaganda and prejudicial attacks as he is to physical  blows in the ring. It  is magical to listen and watch. The scenes of Ali in the ring, ending matches in the first round, second, third--he is skillful, I'd think, as he taunted his opponent jabbing him wearing him down before knocking him out. From the1960 Gold Medal Olympic championship fight, light heavyweight division, between Ali (US) then 18, against Zigzy Pietrzykowski (Poland), on, controversy seemed to follow the charismatic athlete.

There is a great scene in Trials with another Olympian, gold medalist, Tommie Smith who along with bronze medalist John Carlos raised his fist (for Ali). Smith says the gesture was for Ali. This was in 1968, a year after Ali's petition for amnesty was denied. Carlos, Smith and Austrian silver medalist Peter Norman all wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges and all were ostracized when they returned home, for this political stance, just as Ali was when he refused to go to war. Veteran athletes Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis didn't agree with Ali's position on the war either, while Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad didn't agree with each other, but both supported Ali.

Who knew? I certainly didn't. Smith speaks candidly about this time in the film. I found the calculated symbolism in this moment, amazing.

"After the race was completed, the three went to the podium for their medals to be presented by David Cecil, 6th Marquess of Exeter. The two U.S. athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue collar workers in the U.S. and wore a necklace of beads which he described "were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.' All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges after Norman, a critic of Australia's White Australia Policy, expressed empathy with their ideals.Sociologist Harry Edwards, [UC Berkeley] the founder of the OPHR, had urged black athletes to boycott the games; reportedly, the actions of Smith and Carlos on 16 October 1968[2] were inspired by Edwards' arguments" (

Muhammad Ali was a force. He still is now as his legacy inspires others worldwide to stand for what they believe and resist the tendency to compromise their beliefs even when the consequences are frequently unbearable.

The film is screening at the Rafael Film Center, April 21, 2014. To find out more about the film, visit:


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