NEW YORK--When a championship boxer like Muhammad Ali felt disrespected by another fighter, he might have been expected to do what most boxers would: knock his opponent's lights out.
But the icon took a different route when faced with a rival he thought looked down on his religion: He prolonged the fight, aiming to up the level of spectacle and pain. He also made sure his opponent knew his reasons for doing so. "What's my name? What's my name?" Ali's lips could be seen forming as he slowly demolished an opponent who insisted on calling him Cassius Clay.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a Kartemquin documentary exploring Ali’s lifelong journey of spiritual transformation. From his Louisville roots, through his years in exile, to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Trials traces Ali’s path from poet to pariah to global ambassador for peace. At each stage, the challenges Ali faces go far beyond the boxing ring and ultimately encompass issues of power, race, faith and identity that confront us all.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali is not a boxing film and has no highlight reel. Instead, it focuses on Ali’s toughest bouts: his decision to join a controversial religious group, his battle to overturn a five-year prison sentence for refusing US military service, and his struggle with Parkinson’s.
While other Ali films focus on his heroic exploits in the ring, they tragically under-examine some of the most noteworthy, provocative and resonant aspects of Ali’s life, such as his relationship with the Louisville Sponsoring Group, the Nation of Islam, and his Muslim faith.
In Trials, most of the interviewees have never been featured in any Ali film before, yet are central to his life story and the global impact he has made. Prior to becoming the most recognizable face on earth, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and found himself in the crosshairs of conflicts concerning race, religion, and wartime dissent.
In 1964, when the 22-year-old, Olympic gold medalist wins his first heavyweight championship, he shouts, “I shook up the world!” But his earthshaking has only begun. Soon he announces he is a Muslim, a member of the Nation of Islam, and takes a new name: Muhammad Ali.
After Ali is drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, he makes his defining expression of resistance: “No, I will not go 10,000 miles to continue the domination of white slave masters over the darker people of the earth.”
In 1967, after the US government denies Ali’s conscientious objector claim, he refuses military induction. The government convicts Ali of draft evasion, sentences him to five years in prison, and revokes his passport. Ali is banned from boxing and stripped of his title. He begins life in exile within the U.S., vilified in many corners at home, while becoming an international symbol of opposition to unjust war. See More