Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

I love a good documentary - what can I say, I like to learn. But when choosing one to watch, ordinarily I’d look right past something like this. Anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t follow any sports, nor do I have any interest in them. But this one grabbed me. Why? Because despite the subject, this is not a sports film. Out now only on DVD, as a single release or in a boxset with I Am Ali and When We Were Kings, comes The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

Directed by Bill Siegel, The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a fascinating documentary covering the greatest fights Ali ever fought – the fight to be accepted as a Muslim (having changed his name from Cassius Clay), and the fight to not take part in the Vietnam War. Ali was a conscientious objector, an "individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service" on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, and/or religion. He famously stated ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong’, as they never discriminated against his race or religion or harmed him the same way the majority of the US did. And his religion didn’t allow him to fight. But Ali was subsequently put on trial for this objection, and faced being stripped of his titles and thrown in jail for 5 years. Preposterous, right? Well, that’s the 1960s. The era in which people like Martin Luther King were shot for their beliefs of racial equality, and comedian Lenny Bruce was banned from performing in the UK because he swore on stage. Times have changed a lot since then, and for the better. But things still aren’t ideal, are they? 

As a film, The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a very solid documentary. While it doesn’t tread any new ground or do anything remarkable with the genre, it presents an interesting piece of history in an extremely insightful and compelling way. As many of the people involved are sadly deceased, we don’t see a huge amount of fresh interviews. What we do see is a large array of archive footage and interviews, played out chronologically to tell the story – expect for the beginning of the film. We start off with a powerful juxtaposition – old footage of Ali being publicly slammed as a criminal and a degenerate who belongs in jail back in the 60s, followed by more recent footage of Ali in failing health being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005. It’s shocking, isn’t it? Someone we now consider a hero was hated ‘belonged in jail’ Sin his prime. Times change and apologies are given – you know, ‘forgive and forget’ and all that. But it’s preposterous that ‘crimes’ punishable by jail time in the 1960s are often acceptable today, or are just a simple choice. Today, it’s a case of ‘would you like to join the army?’. Back then, it was a case of ‘you’re joining the army’.

In conclusion, The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a strong documentary with a powerful message. Racial and religious inequality is still a big problem, and it really shouldn’t be. Colour and beliefs do not define us. It’s who we are that defines us. Ali was, and still is, a champion. But he almost had that stripped from him for what he believed outside of the ring. Now, we’ve come a hell of a long way in this regard, but we’re not where we need to be yet. Will we be there in another 50 years? Time will tell.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a knock-out, and earns a solid 5/5.


Sam Love

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