Despite all that Muhammad Ali has proven throughout his challenging, outsized life, the Greatest, as he likes to be known, seems to have been plagued by the nagging sense that in some way he’s still considered inferior by white America. At least that’s the impression given of him within the first five minutes of The Trials of Muhammad Ali, when Louis Farrakhan tells us that immediately after Ali received the Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2005, he muttered to Farrakhan that he was “still a nigger.” Ali’s dismissiveness and bitterness register as somewhat of a shock, perhaps because he said it as an elderly man suffering from Parkinson’s disease who doesn’t waste words.
But perhaps the deeper source of the shock comes from Ali’s staggering integrity: It seems that no matter what’s at stake (money, public approval, his career), Ali always puts his values front and center, and the way he catapulted onto the world stage while refusing to give up an inch of who he was is partly why he’s considered one of the greatest sports figures of all time. The Trials of Muhammad Ali certainly backs this notion up, but it also presents Ali, through archival footage of his life outside the ring, more like a victim than a champion of the world. By zooming in on only, it often seems, Ali’s weaker moments, and not many of his brightest, director Bill Siegel inadvertently makes Ali’s integrity seem more like futile stubbornness and nearly equates Ali’s religious beliefs, which here are justified with only racial explanations, to being brainwashed.
There’s always been something about Ali’s boyishness that’s revealed a certain likeable vulnerability. Compared to some of the other legends of the ring that he fought, like Sonny Liston and George Foreman, men who looked like murderers when they unleashed their crushing power on their opponents, Ali was considerably more relatable; behind his myth and volume there appeared to be somewhat of a nervous person talking himself into doing the impossible, and his dancing feet, a theatrical expression of excitement and a strategic distraction to his opponent, were somehow charming and comical. The problem with The Trials of Muhammad Ali is that by focusing on Ali in mostly desperate moments in which he appears rather coarse and shrunken, like when he’s fighting the draft or giving talks filled with Muslim dogma at college campuses, the film thinks its being revealing, but really it’s misreading Ali.
Sure, the film is recounting in greater detail parts of Ali’s life that other documentaries on him haven’t explored, but for all that When We Were Kings or A.k.a. Cassius Clay left out about Ali’s relationship to the Nation of Islam and the trouble he caught when he exposed his religious beliefs to the world, these documentaries captured more of, and more gloriously, Ali’s character. That’s because Ali’s vulnerability isn’t most glowing when he’s fighting invisible laws and abstract forces, but rather when those intangibles take the shape of a fighter swinging at him in the ring. To see Ali at his most vulnerable you paradoxically have to see him not at his weakest, but at his strongest; when he’s loudly, incessantly boasting of his own greatness, when he’s psychologically torturing his opponents, and, lastly, after most of the work has been done, when he’s knocking his opponents out with punches four one-hundredths of a second fast. This is perhaps why The Trials of Muhammad Ali, which is only a standard hour and a half, feels so long. By sidelining Ali’s electrifying side, his “power to make your life so exciting,” as Kanye West, a man who also thinks of himself as the greatest, has said of himself, Siegel has made more of a Ken Burns-esque history book—that is, a medium more dry and factual—than a film, which communicates better through emotion and motion.