The Trials of Muhammad Ali
Runs Fri., Nov. 1–Thurs., Nov. 7 at Varsity. Not rated. 94 minutes.
The most famous athlete of the 20th century, his every fight and utterance covered by international media from 1960–81 (his boxing career), Muhammad Ali has left a mountain of archives for authors and filmmakers to mine. But here’s the catch: They’d better find something new to say after so many prior books and documentaries. Bill Siegel succeeds in pulling up only a few nuggets here, like Ali performing in the Broadway musical Buck White during his ban from boxing. That period, 1967–71, should’ve been framed to much tighter and more dramatic effect, yet Siegel falls into the trap of giving us the whole of the GOAT, which cannot be done in 94 minutes. (A Ken Burns series, maybe.)
I doubt many millennials watch boxing today, and for some this footage may be fresh. The sport is in such decline, its brain-injury stats so damning, that the tale of Ali’s conscientious-objector lawsuit—to avoid being drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War—feels as distant as the Civil War. Siegel punches it up with some fresh interviews, but his sources are too fawning (especially Louis Farrakhan, that smiling clown from the Nation of Islam). Ali is great enough without being lionized yet again. His famously repeated quote “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” is certainly true and courageous, but Siegel never digs deeper into Ali’s resentment about his loss of vocation—the millions he couldn’t earn while serving safely in a National Guard unit, far from the front lines.