Monday, February 3, 2014

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI            B+         
USA  (86 mi)  2013  d:  Bill Siegel             Official site

Once the most recognizable man on the planet, where he started out as a brash young man from Louisville, Kentucky who went on to win the Olympic Gold medal at age 18 as a light heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympics, returning to America vowing to become the heavyweight champion of the world by the time he was age 21.  Filled with a brimming confidence that reached levels of braggadocio and bravado, he vocally belittled his opponents while exclaiming the wonders of his many talents, which included quickness and speed in the ring, including superior hand speed and reflexes, where he had the ability to elude punches.  Nonetheless, his exclamatory behavior was deemed offensive by an older generation of sports writers, who preferred the calm demeanor of Joe Louis who let his fists do his talking.  Unlike any other fighter in recent memory, most of whom let their managers do the talking, the young Cassius Clay craved the spotlight and thrived on outlandish behavior with the press, becoming a provocateur whose theatrical outbursts drew interest to his fights, though he was repeatedly called a loudmouth by the press, who viewed him with condescension despite winning 19 straight fights, all of which led to his opportunity at age 22 to fight heavyweight champion Sonny Liston for the title, where he shocked the world by eluding Liston’s notorious punches and opening a cut under Liston’s left eye, the first time he’d ever been cut, and it was Liston who couldn’t answer the bell for Round 7, with Clay leaping into his trainer’s arms, already claiming he was “the greatest fighter that ever lived.”  But the following morning he was subdued, overly serious, and even reflective, as shortly afterwards, he converted to the Nation of Islam and rebuked what he called his white “slave name,” changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Even afterwards, many refused to recognize that name, insisting he was still Cassius Clay, though New York Times sports journalist Robert Lipsyte points out, “Nobody asked John Wayne or Rock Hudson what their names were.”  Co-director of the Oscar nominated documentary THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND (2002), this is an extremely well-edited film balancing vintage archival material with intelligent commentary.

Even this early in his career, it was telling how so few saw in him who he actually was, as the press continued to view him as just another boxer, yet he didn’t restrict his controversial comments to boxing, and spoke openly about racial prejudice while advocating black liberation, where his stature in the sport drew international attention and acclaim, not just due to his boxing crown, but his willingness to freely address social issues, coming up with quips like “I’m not no slave, I’m Muhammad Ali,” often antagonizing the white press, as well as many former boxing champions who were never allowed to be so outspoken, which would make headlines around the globe.  Also of interest, instead of visiting London, or Paris, or Rome afterwards, the cradle of European civilization, Ali would visit Islamist nations in the Middle East or Africa where he was embraced as a hero.  By the time he was drafted into the army to serve in the Vietnam war, he refused to serve, claiming religious convictions, “I ain’t got nothin’ against no Vietcong…My enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong …You’re my opposer when I want freedom.  You’re my opposer when I want justice.  You’re my opposer when I want equality.  You won’t even stand up for me in America because of my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, when you won’t even stand up for my religious beliefs at home,” where he was stripped of his heavyweight title, barred from entering the ring and his passport revoked, and with it the adulation of many Americans, claiming he was a draft dodger.  Much of what this film attempts to unravel are these continual misperceptions about Ali, despised by some, revered by others, where among the best aesthetic choices made by the director are his choices of interviews which act as the film’s narrative, where we get Gordon Davidson, the only surviving member of the original consortium of 11 white Louisville businessmen that comprised the Louisville Contract Group who managed him for six years as Cassius Clay, claiming he was responsible and lived up to every term of his contract.  We learn first-hand accounts of Ali’s conversion to Islam from “Captain Sam” (Abdul Rahman Muhammad), who met him on the street in Miami, introduced him to Malcolm X and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, eventually persuading him to convert.

Easily one of the film’s highlights are the candidly revealing comments from Ali’s second wife, the amusingly outspoken Khalilah Camacho-Ali, who found him too arrogant when she first met him, but later married him and stuck by his side, calling him a “good Muslim man” for refusing to serve in the military, for refusing to fight the “white man’s war,” which was one of the essential lessons of the Nation of Islam, where we hear the oratory of Malcolm X, “Don’t let the white man speak for you and don’t let the white man fight for you.”  Even the Honorable Elijah Muhammad himself spent four years in jail rather than serve in the military during World War II.  One of the clearest and most eloquent voices heard throughout is that of Salim Muwakkil, former editor of the Nation of Islam newspaper Muhammad Speaks, and a former editorialist of The Chicago Tribune, where he helps navigate us through the various splits within the Nation of Islam, including Malcolm X’s split from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and then the fallout from his assassination, with Ali continually siding with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.  It was Khalilah Camacho-Ali, interestingly enough, according to the producers, that enlisted an interview with Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, as they are neighbors on the same block, where Minister Farrakhan beams with pride when speaking about Ali, as he captivated the attention of the Islamic world abroad while representing himself here at home as a proud black man in America.  But the American public was enraged by his opposition to the Vietnam War, yet in choosing faith and the adherence of his own convictions over the potential millions he could have earned in his sport, this impressed Dr. Martin Luther King, where Ali’s courage under fire helped persuade him to also come out against the War in Vietnam.  There’s an intimate moment between the two when they realize they’ve been the targeted victims of an FBI wiretap, which was searching for evidence of sedition, as in the mid 60’s, free speaking black men were seen by the FBI as a threat to lead an overthrow of the government.  Hard as it is to fathom, this was the paranoid rationale of FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, who continually harassed, blackmailed, and wiretapped Dr. King.  There’s an even more poignant moment, however, when Rahaman Ali recalls what his older brother went through during this lengthy trial period awaiting vindication, when his name was dragged through the mud, subjected to all sorts of demeaning invective and brutally harsh judgment, where we see him called a fool, a pawn of Islam, a disgrace to his race and his country, anti-American, a draft dodger, and a traitor, a time when he could no longer support his family, where words fail him and emotions erupt before the camera. 

Ali’s trial remains a bone of contention, as many believe that anyone who refuses to fight for his country doesn’t deserve to fight in the ring, and some were adamant that Ali should serve time in jail, while others found his defiant actions heroic, where according to Dr. King, “Those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty, those who are seeking to make it appear that anyone who opposes the war in Vietnam is a fool or a traitor or an enemy of our soldiers is a person that has taken a stand against the best in our tradition,” reflected in the black power salutes displayed by Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.  But after three and a half years in litigation, his case goes to the Supreme Court, where we hear the comments from Thomas Krattenmaker, clerk of Supreme Court Justice John Harlan, and realize the court itself was just as conflicted about the legal ramifications of Ali’s case, as they had allowed conscientious objector status from Jehovah’s Witnesses, but not members of the Nation of Islam.  So as not to open any swinging doors to all Muslims, they agreed to establish legal precedent for Ali alone, and granted him a unanimous victory.  This allowed Ali an opportunity to return to the ring, where his career transcended the sport, as his name became synonymous with perseverance and the courage of one’s convictions, where his innate personal charm has always created legions of adoring admirers.  Fifty years later, the fury that Ali faced from an outraged American public may only be matched by the outraged post 9/11 nation that continues to harbor fears and paranoia against people of Islamist faith.  Despite being rendered physically powerless by the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, Ali came out within 10 days to remind the American public that Islam is a religion of peace, not one that advocates war.  His voice was nearly lost to the drumbeats of war, but his own decision of conscience still reverberates with global implications today, as it’s often hard to measure the difference between freedom fighters, religious zealots, men of faith, and an appropriate use of the military.  As a boxer, Ali probably had the fastest hand and foot speed ever seen in a heavyweight, and was one of the first to control his own press conferences and interviews, transforming the role of both black athletes and a black populace in America by embracing racial pride, where in the words of writer Joyce Carol Oates, he was one of the few athletes in any sport to completely “define the terms of his public reputation.”  Again, according to Robert Lipsyte, “We created a symbol, and Muhammad Ali has long since been supplanted by what we believe he is.  There are so many ways of looking at him that have only to do with us and have nothing to do with him.”  Ali was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. 

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