“This life is a trial and you realize that what you do is going to be written down for judgment day.” – Muhammad Ali, 2001 Interview with O Magazine.
He is one of the “prettiest” and prolific figures in the world.
In the ring, Muhammad Ali out-witted and jabbed his way to champion on multiple occasions. He had a mouthpiece that rang in your head even when the cameras weren’t engaged in his ever-waking existence-whether as his cheerleader or verbal aggressor. As obnoxious and insulting as it may have been toward his opponents, part of his charm was the slick talking and confidence he exuded.
Ali knew how to push your buttons and steal your attention.
“Cassius was a good fighter. He would brag,” says Khalilah- Camacho Ali, Muhammad Ali’s ex-wife. “And [people] hated that he would brag and win.”
That’s a side of Ali, one of the most recognized and admirable people in the world that we see quite often in various films and documentaries. But, there is a side to him that those same storylines glaze over – acknowledging short bits but never unfolding its entirety. Not only did the boxing ring make Ali prolific but it was the noise he stirred outside of the ring that brought attention to his character.
During the 1960s, Muhammad Ali ignited a stance that, probably unintentionally, gave you a bigger glimpse of who he was as a man. At the pinnacle of his career, the then 22-year old known as Cassius Clay whom already held an Olympic Gold Belt on his list of achievements, was drafted by the U.S. Army to fight in the Vietnam War. He rejected on the basis that he was a conscientious objector. What came to follow would explode into a three in a half-year fight for justice, self-discovery and broadened into a life of global humanitarian work.
Through archival footage and accounts from those who were right by Ali’s side during the exile years, such as his brother, Khalilah, and Minister Louis Farrakhan, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, directed by Bill Siegel (Hoop Dreams, The Weather Underground) and released through Kartemquin films, an independent documentary company in Chicago succeeds in giving viewers a fuller understanding and appreciation for Ali as he battles adversity and stands his ground, fearlessly.
What unfolds is a conversation of race, injustice and courage. We see transitions in intellect and personal growth, as Cassius Clay, Jr. becomes Muhammad Ali.
“I discovered this Muhammad Ali beyond the ring and felt like Muhammad Ali, the man, in addition to being a boxer is a story that we can all benefit from,” says Siegel. “I think that we’re all works in progress to a certain extent – we’re all born who we are but we’re also constantly becoming ourselves, so that’s kind of the story this film aims to tell. How Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.”
A Man and A Movement:
Freedom doesn’t come without a fight and in the 1960s African-Americans rumbled with energy and might protesting for theirs. And it took time for people to understand the underlining messages of what Ali stood for
He took his power with one objection: The moment he declared, he would take no part in war.
As a result of refusing to serve in the war, the U.S. government stripped Ali of everything. They took his passports, his championship titles and banned him from boxing. He was frustrated. He had a family and had to make money. With his wife guiding and supporting him along the way, Ali began touring the country speaking out against war and racism on college campuses, on talk shows and he took up acting – we see a brief clip of Ali in the short-lived production “Buck White”.
“My enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong . . . You’re my opposer when I want freedom. You’re my opposer when I want justice. You’re my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America because of my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, when you won’t even stand up for my religious beliefs at home,” he famously voiced.
“Not stepping across that line, that was a big move. That was a dangerous move,” says Khalilah. “As Muslims, we were anti-war. He didn’t realize how much he was going to risk. He risked the fact that these people were going to be coming after him. He risked the fact that he was a target.”
Speaking out against war and challenging racial equality put the spotlight even more on Ali. In the eyes of many, he was seen as a villain.
“ Oh no! If you didn’t go to the Army, you were nothing,” Khalilah states, adding, “You weren’t right. You weren’t American. You’d be surprised at a lot of negroes that didn’t like him.”
Famed baseball player, Jackie Robinson and fellow-boxer Joe Louis were among his critics, whom also included journalists, talk show hosts, and even college students who tested and questioned him during his fiery speeches.
He took heat for being Muslim and following the teachings of Nation of Islam Leader, Elijah Muhammad, who’s views bluntly acknowledged white men as the “devil” and encouraged Black separatism. Being new to the religion, Ali would retort these beliefs publicly when being attacked for his belief system.
Khalilah adds, “He was just coming into this religion. He was learning. But, he was willing to do it. He was willing to become a Muslim. He was willing to fight for what we believed in because it made sense. There weren’t any Black people standing up for their beliefs.”
She continues, “I think [the US Government] used Ali to hurt the Black Muslims. They used him as a pawn because they hated us too. The White man can’t control Muslims. They had no right to strip him of everything. They had no right to take away his license. That’s not in the books of not going to the Army!”
In ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’ there’s growth within Ali that comes from all of this. We see his views being challenged and we also see a shift in his way of thinking, following the passing of Elijah Muhammad.
“When he was forced into exile within the US, when the government took away his passport, and sentenced him to five years in prison, I think that was a big chapter of maturation for him – to really become a self-reliant thinker,” Siegel analyzes. “And now informed by the Nation of Islam’s world view – which was a pretty rigid orthodox world view that he subscribed to for a time. But he began to grow beyond that, I think as a result of what he received from the students on campus.”
The evolution of Muhammad Ali began and grew into one who cared for all humanity. Remaining a Muslim, his messaging began to change and go beyond the anti-white and black separatism ideology. His heart was for peace of all people.
It was his strength, support of his then wife and the empowerment he exuded that served as motivation; and by 2005 he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Bush.
Muhammad Ali was made to spark the world –whether it was pre-determined or unraveled as he continued his life journey and understanding of self. And it wasn’t so much the fact that you would agree with everything or execute his every action, but rather the way in which he was strong enough to speak his mind, challenge opponents from any aspect of his life and be fearless. It’s something that even Martin Luther King Jr., acknowledged and applauded him for.
The ideal of greatness isn’t justified by simply saying it. Greatness leads with action and leaves a lasting, substantial impact.
“Ali is larger than life. When I first met him years ago, he first blew me by his humility,” says Siegel. “His love for humanity and not just abstract, but every individual person, is something that I’ve carried with me as best I can.”
Muhammad Ali never allowed anyone to define who he was and people fear that – that act of not understanding how one whom they feel to be inferior can speak their mind candidly and fight for their beliefs, with no back down.
The greatness of Muhammad Ali lies not only in his physical ability to dance around in a ring and champion his opponent, but it lies further in his ability to liberate a people and a nation. To follow through with purpose, vision and exude a freedom that is without compromise of individuality and integrity.
“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision. They have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.” – Muhammad Ali, The Champ