Michael Jordan. Lebron James. Babe Ruth. Jerry Rice. These are just a few names that have become more than just sports legends. Transcending the world of sports, these athletes have become synonymous with athletic excellence, so much so that they have become some of the most iconic names in all of popular culture. However, there may be one that has had as much impact outside of his sport as he has inside of it.
Muhammad Ali, inarguably the greatest and most influential/important boxer in the history of the sport, went from a controversial youngster to stand as a Civil Rights giant with as much influence in the political arena as he had inside the squared circle.
However, his life has been more than just a road of rises and falls. Full of racism, draft dodging and enough controversy and religious fervor to make even the strongest person crumble under the pressure, Ali and his life has become fodder for a brand new documentary, a non-fiction picture that may very well be the best sports documentary so far this decade.
Entitled The Trials Of Muhammad Ali, the film comes to us from Kartemquin Films and director Bill Siegel, and tells the story of Ali as he goes from Cassius Clay, to the best boxer of his generation. Primarily focusing on Ali’s battle against a five year prison sentence after refusing to join the US military during the Vietnam War, the film uses this collection of trials to set up an all encompassing look at a man who not only became his sport’s biggest and best name, but also a Civil Rights voice and a lightning rod after joining the Nation Of Islam. Clocking in at only 90 minutes, the film may feel like a brisk over view of the life of the baddest man alive, but instead is as thrilling an insight into just how duplicitous an entity as Muhammad Ali truly was.
Featuring interviews with people ranging from fellow boxers like John Carlos to fellow Nation Of Islam leaders like Louis Farrakhan, the film may sound like just another documentary on the ever influential Muhammad Ali, but is far from it. Instead of looking at a singular match like a film like When We Were Kings (a “better” but far different picture) or a singular portion of his life, the film takes a strong look at some of the lesser talked about aspects of his life. As interested, arguably more so, on his relationship to Islam as it is on his boxing impact, the film starts introducing us to one of Ali’s most influential backers, the Louisville Sponsoring Group. A Louisville boy through and through, this film thrillingly posits Ali as a man of many faces, as soft spoken and full of love as he is bombastic and abrasively braggadocios.
However, the film really comes to life when the Vietnam War becomes a player. World champion at this time in his life, he is re-classified thus sending him into eligibility for the draft, making service all but certain. With legends like boxer Joe Louis and baseball marvel Ted Williams all joining the armed services to fight in WWII, a sports star of Ali’s height could never deny joining the army, right? Wrong. After joining the Nation Of Islam, he argued that his religion does not allow him to fight any war not directly sighted by Allah, let alone one that would see him killing men, women and children who never did any of the things, he argued, that society had the gall to do in his own country. A breathlessly controversial argument, the film raised national tensions to a height rarely seen, especially due to an athlete.
And in that is this film’s glory. Siegel here crafts a film so powerfully pertinent that it truly becomes an absolute spectacle. For a star of Ali’s height to not only risk his title as World Champion but ultimately his livelihood and his very own freedom, what with a five year prison sentence being contested all the way to the Supreme Court, this film carries within each frame a sense of vitality and power that is rarely seen in a documentary of this ilk.
Using numerous collections of archival footage, The Trials Of Muhammad Ali is a devastating and ultimately life affirming look at a man, not a legend or an athlete but a man, that flipped the establishment the bird and decided that his faith and his freedom were far more important than any world title. A love letter to a man who has since become known as a fighter in and outside of the squared circle, this film proves that while he may have been a master of the sweet science in the ring, Muhammad Ali was more than just a flesh and bone man out of it. Sports fans take notice, your favorite film of the year may have just arrived.