'The Trials of Muhammad Ali' review: As it was
The San Francisco Chronicle
"The Trials of Muhammad Ali" takes viewers back to the 1960s and early '70s, when Cassius Clay emerged on the scene, changed his name and risked jail to register as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. There is history as it's remembered, and then there's history as it happened. This documentary gives us the latter, and it's a true education.
Ali is a revered figure in the United States and throughout the world for his achievements as a boxer, for his courage and for his sense of humor. So it's almost hard to remember that he was once despised. Even harder to remember or appreciate is that he brought much of that hostility on himself. Ali was always fast on his feet, literally and figuratively, but his charm was learned.
Only 22 when he became the world champion in 1964, Ali grew up in public, and many of his early statements were naive, obnoxious or ridiculous. He seemed almost to want people to hate him, and he came close to making that sentiment unanimous. The documentary contains many uncomfortable moments, as when Jerry Lewis is shown treating Ali as though he were an idiot.
Ali - Cassius Clay, at the time - entered the heavyweight bout against champion Sonny Liston as a 7-to-1 underdog. The majority of the press and public thought he was a showboating clown. He had to win twice against Liston for many to accept reality. The press' resistance to his name change - people insisted on calling him "Clay" instead of "Ali" - was a symptom of people's disdain and skepticism.
Thus, when he was drafted into the military and refused to go, citing his conversion to Islam, he was in no position to engage in a publicity war with the U.S. government. Not only were conservatives against him, but the Hollywood elite reviled him. Even black sports stars, such as Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, issued statements against him. This is where Ali's character becomes evident: To maintain one's self-belief in the face of such widespread disdain takes enormous inner strength.
"The Trials of Muhammad Ali" - not to be confused with the recent HBO drama, "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight," which focuses solely on the Supreme Court appeal of his draft-evasion conviction - documents a crucial decade in Ali's life, and over the course of the film you can see him changing his public strategies, or perhaps just changing as a person. Sportscaster Howard Cosell supported him from the beginning, and the two formed a symbiosis on television - they were practically a comedy team - that slowly eased Ali into the public's good graces. The public changed, too, but the film shows that he met it halfway.
Still, Ali had legal battles, and his career and freedom hung by a thread. Easily, he could have gone to prison and never boxed again, which means that all those classic fights - Ali-Frazier, Ali-Foreman, Ali-Norton - might never have happened. The world of sports would have been poorer for it, though - what a terrible irony - Ali himself might have been better off.