It’s easy to forget that before Muhammad Ali became a symbol of all-American grit, he was a deviant—at least by Vietnam-era America’s standards. When the heavyweight champ claimed conscientious objection to the Vietnam draft in 1966, stars from David Susskind to Jackie Robinson joined the droves labeling him Muslim extremist and draft-dodger. Stripped of his title and barred from the ring, Ali spent more than three years giving campus lectures (and working theatre gigs) while the courts volleyed his draft-evasion case (which could’ve ended in five years behind bars). For a not-insignificant time, things were looking grim for The Greatest.
It’s those years in exile that Kartemquin documentarist Bill Siegel explores in The Trials of Muhammad Ali, which will screen at the Music Box Theatre, Chatham 14, and ICE Lawndale 10 this weekend, with special appearances by Siegel and Khalila Camacho-Ali, Ali’s second wife.
“My first job in documentary was as a researcher on Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story,” says Siegel. “I was magnetically drawn toward this footage of Ali speaking out on college campuses against the war and against racism, and learned that he did that to make a living during the period when he’d been banned from boxing, stripped of his title, convicted of draft evasion, and sentenced to five years in prison.”
As Khalila Camacho-Ali puts it, on-screen: “The exiled years were the worst years of me and Ali’s life.”
In an interview at Chicagoist, Chuck Sudo notes that it’s Siegel’s use of non-fight footage that sets Trials apart from other Ali films. While the select fight scenes in Trials do their part to highlight Ali’s raw talent, it’s Siegel’s slew of archival media that reveal Ali taking his hardest hits outside the ring. In scene one, David Susskind calls Ali a “disgrace to his county” on live TV. Later, Jerry Lewis hosts Ali on his late-night talk show only to lose his temper (“Will you let me finish and shut your mouth for one minute?") And later, as Ali tours college campuses, students vet his pacifism, donning all-too-familiar undergraduate sneers. The scenes are anything but heroic, and remind that Ali’s toughest hurdles came when he wasn’t throwing punches.
“This story is as much about our response to Muhammad Ali’s transformation as it is about him,” says Siegel. “He was villainized in many corners of this country, and by 2005 he’s being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Bush. The change there is our change more than it is Ali’s.”
The Trials of Muhammad Ali screens November 8-14 at the Music Box Theatre and ICE Lawndale 10, and November 8-21 at Chatham 14 Cinema. Bill Siegel and Khalila Camacho-Ali will conduct audience Q&A sessions November 8 at the Music Box (8 p.m.), November 9 at Chatham 14 (4:45 p.m.), and November 10 at ICE Lawndale 10 (7 p.m.).
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