The only reason why Judge Michael Nazarewycz never pursued a career in boxing is that he looks terrible in satin shorts.
I recently reviewed Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, an HBO-produced dramatization of the boxer's legal battles in the wake of his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War despite being drafted, citing conscientious observer status. Those battles took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The film, which is good (not great), focuses primarily on the justices' side of the story, but I had noted in my review that the best part of the film was the historical footage of Ali. Since then, I've been eager to learn the story from the fighter's perspective and get the chance to visit even more classic clips of Cassius Clay.
Facts of the Case
A young Louisville boxer by the name of Cassius Clay was making a name for himself not only for his boxing acumen, but also for his dynamic, sometimes bombastic, and always egotistical, personality. As he rose to notoriety, he met local people of influence from the Nation of Islam, including his future wife and Malcolm X. He came to embrace the Nation's teachings and converted to—and became a minister of—that faith. This was not received well by many, particularly given the racially charged times.
It was also not received well by the United States military, which drafted Clay—who had since changed his name to Muhammad Ali—to serve in the Vietnam War. Ali claimed "conscientious objector" status and refused to serve; which cost him his title, his boxing license in every state in the country, and years of his career; until the trial found its way in front of the US Supreme Court.
"Well I don't know where to begin. I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He's a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession. He is a convicted felon in the United States. He has been found guilty. He is out on bail. He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should. He's a simplistic fool and a pawn."
That's the quote with which The Trials of Muhammad Ali opens, as spoken by David Susskind, a US talk show host appearing as a guest on the UK's The Eamonn Andrews Show in London, 1968. The target of his venomous words is Muhammad Ali, who was also a guest on the show, appearing via satellite from Chicago. It sums up the general American attitude toward the boxer at that time.
The next clip in the film is video of Ali receiving the Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in Washington, 2005.
You've come a long way, baby.
These two clips do more than show how much has changed in 40 years. They set the stage for the entire theme of the film: a story about a man and his faith, how that man wants to live his life, and how others view the life he has lived thus far. This is all complicated by so many factors.
He is a black man living in a time when black men were already fighting against the narrow-mindedness of society. He chooses a faith that many view with a suspicious eye. He is an opponent of a war that has divided a nation. On top of all of that, he is a celebrity, but not just any celebrity.
He is a national hero, having won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics (light heavyweight boxing) and he is a champion in a sport that is important to the country (exponentially more so than today—boxing is dead despite what HBO tells you). Unlike past champions, though, he is handsome and arrogant and charismatic and mouthy and the only reason why people don't loathe him more for all of this is that he has the skills to back it up. It's this celebrity—and the larger-than-life size of it—that puts every move of Ali's under a microscope and on every front page and news broadcast.
Imagine Ali and this time in his life if Twitter had existed.
Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) does an excellent job focusing on Ali the Man and leveraging Ali the Celebrity as needed, offering enough about Ali's career to give the viewer an excellent idea of who the Celebrity is in relation to the Man. He also makes sure we know that while Ali was passionately polite, well-measured, and well-spoken when in front of a crowd or a camera, he was an absolute beast in the ring…especially when his opponents were vocally anti-Muslim and insisted on calling him Clay. The footage of his fight with Ernie Terrell alone is rewind-worthy.
Throughout the film, though, the tension about Ali's decisions and the reaction to them is attached to the Nation of Islam and how the public, the media, and the government feel about that organization, its leadership, and its members. Ali having chosen a different path isn't enough to generate controversy, it's the path he chose that does it, and Siegel continuously (and necessarily) reminds us of this.
Siegel seamlessly weaves an endless supply of clips of the Champ, news footage, some stark images (of Vietnam and lynchings), and a collection of interviews with people who knew Ali best; including NOI leader Louis Farrakhan, Ali's brother Rahman Ali, Ali's ex-wife Khalilah Camacho-Ali, New York Times sports writer Robert Lipsyte, and others.
The net result is a mesmerizing tale with all the impact of a series of body blows topped off with a vicious uppercut.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation is excellent. The newer footage (interviews and such) is sharp, and the older imagery is maximized to its best possible look short of full restoration (and some of it is rough). The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is even better, leveling the wide variety of source tracks for a consistent output. The filmmakers then masterfully layer Joshua Abrams' sensational score over the film. The tracks are always era- and scene-appropriate, and never compete for your attention.
Honestly, I thought I would have wanted to see this on Blu-ray, but the less-dynamic DVD presentation lends itself well to the source material and the overall tone of the film. I won't go as far as to say that less is more, but less is perfect here.
The extras on Kino Lorber's release of The Trials of Muhammad Ali are great. They lead off with a pair of commentaries—one track with director Bill Siegel, composer Joshua Abrams, and editor Aaron Wickenden; the other track with executive producer Gordon Quinn and journalist Salim Muwakkil. That's followed by The Mock Trials of Muhammad Ali, a documentary short that runs about eight minutes. It highlights mock Clay trials performed by Kentucky high schoolers in 2010.
Next are four deleted scenes totaling over eight minutes. They are
interesting additions to the story (especially the end of the Beatles bit) that
were perfectly fine to have been removed from the film. Their titles are
But the true gems are three educational supplements that can only be
accessed by inserting the DVD into a computer (it worked perfectly fine on my
The Trials of Muhammad Ali is not a great documentary about a legendary boxer who became Muslim, this is a great documentary about a man who happened to be a legendary boxer and became Muslim.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. This Ali doc is Not Guilty!
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