Monday, January 6, 2014

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

On Halloween, I saw The Trials of Muhammad Ali at the Landmark Opera Plaza.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali; documentary; directed by Bill Siegel; (2013) - Official Website

I recall that this film had screened at the 2013 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival because the director is Jewish.

This is one of these films where too much time has passed since I watched it.  I recall feeling underwhelmed by the film but I have a hard time remembering more than a few snippets of the film.

I have an interest in history and compared to most people I meet, my interest is very keen.  I didn't really learn too much about Muhammad Ali from The Trials of Muhammad Ali.  I guess some people are surprised to learn that Ali refused induction into the US Armed Forces during the Vietnam War and was stripped of his boxing title.  He very nearly incarcerated but a Supreme Court decision spared him a prison sentence and allowed him to fight professionally after a three year layoff.  I knew all this before reading the synopsis of The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

What did I learn?  I wasn't aware of how much resistance there was to Ali when he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.  Many sports reporter continued to refer to him as Clay and Ali chafed when he was referred to as Clay.

I don't recall this from the film but Ali was functionally illiterate.  He was classified as unfit because he failed the writing and spelling portions of qualifying test.  Later, the US military lowered the standards and Ali was classified 1A.  Ali claimed to be a conscientious objector (CO) and refused induction in the military.  His draft board rejected his CO status and he was convicted.  All the state athletic commissions suspended or revoked his boxing licenses.

The film did shed some light on Ali's appeal of his conviction.  Originally, the Supreme Court voted to uphold Ali's conviction but while writing the majority, one justice changed his mind and deadlocked the court 4-4 (Thurgood Marshall recused himself).  Rather than commenting on Ali's CO claims, a loophole was found.  The Supreme Court ruled that the reason for rejecting Ali's CO status was not documented and therefore the denial was invalid.  Presumably, Ali could be re-drafted, claim to be a CO and then a draft board could fully documents its reasons for denying the claim but by then, the draft was winding down and Ali faced little chance of being drafted again.

My father has told me on several occasion how divisive Ali was by his behavior and refusal to be drafted but the film feature clips of Ali being interviewed on television and the open hostility he faced.  The film featured a great clip of Ali appearing on television show and verbally sparring with Jerry Lewis.  The film made clear how much opposition Ali faced and how the public has gone from reviling him to revering him over the course of his lifetime.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali was an ok film.  I thought it was too pro-Ali to be considered unbiased.  I'm sure many people could learn quite a bit from the film.

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