DVD Review - The Trials of Muhammad Ali

Michael Mann's Ali already covered the material here in a fictionalized or dramatized way. Will Smith is fine in the titular role, but, in the case of Muhammad Ali, it's always better to watch the real thing. Of course, there have been tons of documentaries and programs on Ali, but this one focuses on the Supreme Court decision involving the heavyweight boxer, Clay v. United States (1970), almost done in a manner to justify or explain Ali getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, a young black man who rose to prominence in the 1960s after winning a medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. He won the heavyweight boxing championship in 1964. He started converting to Islam in that time and became a follower of Elijah Muhammad, rejecting integration for instead black nationalism and occasional reverse racism.

In 1967, he was drafted into the United States Army, as part of the country's desire to fight in the Vietnam War. However, Ali objected to the war. He cited religious reasons as the basis for registering as a conscientious objector. Ali drew controversy when he spoke out saying the Viet Cong weren't his enemy. He saw white Americans as more of an enemy.

His registering as a conscientious objector was rejected and he was ordered to serve in the army. When Ali refused to serve, the U.S. government convicted him. Refusing military service back then was a crime, so he was convicted and even sentenced to prison. Ali appealed the conviction and in 1970, the Supreme Court took the case.

This documentary by Bill Siegel examines the ins and outs, as well as the ups and downs surrounding this time. Because Ali was so outspoken and highly covered by the media, there was a lot for Siegel to utilize. It's not all file footage. Siegel does have current interviews of people like Ali's brother, his daughter, scholars to comment on the legal case and Minister Louis Farrakhan for the Nation of Islam's perspective.

The highlights of course are the file footage of Ali. He is a very attractive person and a compelling character to watch. He's funny. He's charming. He's cocky. He's arrogant. He's very verbal, extremely verbose. He's very handsome and is in amazing shape. Even when he says things with which you disagree, he has such a commanding voice and presence that you can't help but be drawn to him.

When you have such a dynamic human and tons of footage and material on him, crafting a documentary on him is easy. There have already been several. Facing Ali (2009) is the most recent. When We Were Kings (1996) is probably the best, having won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. With a movie like this, what happens is that you look at it and remark at how things have changed and examine why things were the way they were.

There are funny moments that I didn't realize. One of which is that Ali performed in a Broadway musical. It's not mentioned here in this film, but Ali did a little acting here and there. He played himself in a movie about himself called The Greatest (1977). He basically did the same thing that Jackie Robinson did nearly 30 years prior in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). Ali also played in a TV movie called Freedom Road (1979).

Strangely, the boxing matches were boring, especially in light of the fact that Ali is foremost known as a boxer. Ali was only interesting when he was speaking rather than swinging his arms.

Yes, Ali was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated in 1999, and his sportsmanship comes via his fists and his feet. Yet, it was his mouth that ultimately made him memorable. It made him entertaining and he gains my respect for using that mouth to oppose the war.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for general audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 32 mins.


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