“There’s a Muslim in America named Muhammad Ali.”
Louis Farrakhan, The Trials of Muhammad Ali
The Trials of Muhammad Ali opens with contrasting responses to Muhammad Ali, highlighted by the awkward ceremony in which George W. Bush awarded Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The documentary follows footage of that ceremony with Louis Farrakan struggling with Ali’s pronouncement that Ali was “still a nigger.”
David Zirin calls The Trials of Muhammad Ali “the best documentary ever made about the most famous draft-resister in human history,” situating the documentary against the Will Smith bio-pic and other documentaries. I felt the same tension between trying to recreate Ali and the historical Ali when I watched HBO’s Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (see my earlier post, Ali: “You must listen to me“).
To me, that historical and complicated Ali remains out of reach for many in the U.S.:
The documentary ran on PBS and can be viewed streaming online, but I remain uncertain—despite the power of the documentary—about the American character in 2014 and whether or not we can fully connect with a black man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee in a white world.
My reservations, however, do not deter me from recommending that everyone tries by starting with this documentary that forces viewers to confront the uncomfortable.
David Susskind calls Ali a “simplistic fool,” and Jerry Lewis adds that Ali is a “big bag of wind”—just two of numerous scenes in which white men berate and demean Ali.
Ali smiles. Ali jabs with his wit and even with a cool detachment.
Black Nationalism and the Nation of Islam are characters in this documentary, as are Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., John Carlos, and Tommy Smith (just to highlight a few)—with Ali always at the center of the tensions this part of U.S. history entails.
The literal trial of Ali was his refusal to serve in Vietnam, but the film also dramatizes in detailed fashion how Ali as a converted Muslim was a trial for Ali and the U.S.
A key scene, for me, is sports writer Robert Lipsyte discussing how the New York Times refused to print Muhammad Ali’s Muslim name, maintaining Cassius Clay, to which Lipsyte states: “Nobody asked John Wayne or Rock Hudson what their names were.”
The history of Ali during the volatile 1960s and into the 1970s, the focus of the documentary, is the history of the U.S. Both are complicated, and both are filled with contradictions.
If you want to come closer to understanding both Ali and the often ignored aspects of U.S. history—the Civil Rights Era that dare not be uttered—then you should view The Trials of Muhammad Ali.
Since viewing the documentary twice, I am left wrestling with Farrakhan smiling as he speaks about Ali battering opponents and taunting them with “What’s my name?”
And now that refrain haunts me as does Ali’s “You must listen to me.”
I am not sure that we must, but I know we should.
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