The archival footage in Bill Siegel’s documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is wondrous. How could it not be, featuring the gentleman in the title.
The then-Cassius Clay offers instructions on how to play croquet (!) to one of the white businessmen from his native Louisville, Ky., who backed him financially. President George W. Bush presents him with the Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony (one guess which man seems the more magisterial). Not just Joe Louis but also Jackie Robinson denounce him as a draft dodger. Ali dresses down William F. Buckley Jr. on “Firing Line” — and Buckley takes it. Jerry Lewis, on a network talk show, tells Ali, “I think you’re the damnedest showman who ever lived.” Say what you will about Jerry Lewis, the man knows a thing or two about showmanship.
As its title indicates, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” focuses on Ali as political figure rather than boxing champion or cultural phenomenon, though, inevitably, there are elements of both those aspects of his life, too. The documentary quickly covers his upbringing in Louisville and, except for the Medal of Freedom presentation and footage of Ali lighting the Olympic torch at the Atlanta games, in 1996, doesn’t go beyond 1971.
It follows Ali through the ’60s, one of the decade’s defining personalities, and up to the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision overturning his conviction on charges of draft evasion. Hearing how the justices’ vote shifted from 5-3 against (Justice Thurgood Marshall had recused himself) is almost as fascinating as watching Ali preen and prance and prognosticate.
So there’s nothing about the three Ali-Frazier fights; the Rumble in the Jungle, where he defeated George Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight title; or the long, sad descent brought on by Parkinson’s disease. That affliction has made speech difficult for Ali — once among the most voluble and wittily articulate of men — so we don’t hear from him today. Instead, talking heads include his brother, his second wife, one of his daughters, one of the Louisville backers, the sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, and several members of the Nation of Islam, including Louis Farrakhan.
“The Trials of Muhammad Ali” covers in considerable detail Ali’s relationship with that group, better known as the Black Muslims. His conversion to Islam led to his refusing military induction and, more generally, his ostracizing by a very large majority of Americans. The many newspaper headlines and news clips which ignore his name change are shocking — and a textbook example of how backward this country was in its openness to cultural and religious diversity.
What’s more shocking, though, is the film’s credulousness about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, which he founded. Various laudatory statements about both founder and movement are taken at face value. Few criticisms are heard. And noises about the role of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam in the murder of Malcolm X, who played a key role in converting Ali, are effectively ignored. So, too, is the way Ali turned on Malcolm once his friend broke with Elijah Muhammad. There is much to be said for the Nation of Islam, as well as against, but not so much for Elijah Muhammad. He was not, let us say, a good guy. The title of the film isn’t “The Trials of Elijah Muhammad.” But to have someone who played so crucial a role in Ali’s life treated in so uncritical a fashion makes for what you might call a doughnut documentary: There’s a hole in the middle of what is otherwise a very satisfying product.