The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Trials of Muhammad Ali

The Trials of Muhammad Ali is not the first documentary to be made about the boxing legend, but it's certainly the most essential. Ali was so popular in his day that even people who didn't care about boxing were fans. He became a cultural phenomenon, not just a sports phenomenon. That kind of popularity brings problems, though, in that the public and the media create their own ideas of what the figure in question should be. This was certainly the case with Ali. As one interview subject in this film puts it, there are so many ways of looking at him that have everything to do with us, and nothing to do with him.

Director Bill Siegel focuses on the struggles and controversies in Ali's career, all of which stemmed from intense personal beliefs: his conversion to Islam, his renunciation of birth name Cassius Clay, his assertion that all white people were devils, declaring himself a “conscientious objector” when drafted for the Vietnam War. Each of these issues came with a set of personal and professional consequences he had to work through. Most dramatically, he was sentenced to five years in prison for draft dodging. Interviews with close friends (and an ex-wife) help us understand what was at stake in this most severe incident. Ali could have fought, but it went against his religious convictions. Not fighting meant possible jail time and being viewed as unpatriotic. Either way, the outcome did not seem good for him. That he ended up having the conviction overturned, only to become more popular than ever, is a testament to his unwillingness to sacrifice his ideals.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali suggests that the single-mindedness Ali had in the ring served him well outside it. He was a natural fighter, driven to win, ready to step up when the chips were down. Whereas a lesser man would have been driven to distraction by such tribulations, Ali persevered in the face of difficulty, all while continuing to win his boxing matches. The extensive use of archival footage – preserving the ever-talkative subject's own words – reveals that he used the same skills no matter who or what he was fighting. Intimidation, erudition, constant pummeling of an opponent, and refusing to be pinned down were his tools. Having learned to capitalize on these things in the ring, he was shrewd enough to recognize they would benefit him in other areas, too.

Today, Ali is viewed as a national treasure. He endured controversies that would have ended the careers of others less charismatic. What most people remember is the ego, the catch phrases (“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”), the antagonism with Howard Cosell, and, of course, the victories. The Trials of Muhammad Ali shows us a man who is much more than “The Greatest.” It presents an idealist, a fighter for civil rights, a pacifict, and a man who did nothing halfway. Ali understood how to shape his public image. More than that, he understood the kind of man he wanted to be. And perhaps that, most of all, is what allowed him to maintain public favor through it all. We sensed a genuineness in him; Ali made certain that we saw it. This remarkable, fascinating, inspiring documentary shows the proof.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Trials of Muhammad Ali is unrated, but contains some language and mature subject matter. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.

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