Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Trials of Muhammad Ali (Kartemquin Films/PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a presentation of the film The Trials of Muhammad Ali on PBS’s Independent Lens series — though this wasn’t a PBS production or pick-up but a film that actually did have a theatrical release, albeit minor and spotty like most documentaries. It wasn’t so much a biodoc about Ali’s entire career as a focus on his early life, beginning when he won the gold medal in boxing at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and a group of 11 middle-aged whites in his home town — Louisville, Kentucky, which until the advent of Ali was best known for a quite different type of sporting event, the Kentucky Derby — formed a syndicate to manage him, run his career and help him evade the 91 percent top income-tax rate of the Eisenhower administration by arranging it so that all Ali’s income went to the partnership, and they in turn paid it (less their expenses and commissions) to Ali. I’m calling him “Muhammad Ali” throughout even though he was born Cassius Marcellus Clay (named, intriguingly, after the son of Henry Clay; the original Cassius Clay was an abolitionist — much to the embarrassment of his dad, who was one of many politicians in the first half of the 19th century who wanted to “compromise” on slavery — and was also Mary Todd’s boyfriend before they broke up and she married Abraham Lincoln) and the very act of changing his name became a flash point in the controversies that surrounded him in the mid-1960’s even though, as the film’s narration pointed out (I’m assuming it was both written and delivered by the film’s director, Bill Siegel, though no writer or narrator is credited), no one looked particularly askance at John Wayne or Rock Hudson for having changed their names (from Marion Michael Morrison and Roy Fitzgerald, respectively). The film’s story follows Ali’s first career, from the Olympic victory in 1960 to his refusal to be inducted in the U.S. Army in 1967 and the legal battle that ensued, during which he was stripped of the heavyweight championship he had duly won in 1964 (at age 22, two years before he had predicted he would win it) and kept by defeating all comers, and had a five-year prison sentence hanging over his head until the U.S. Supreme Court at first voted 5-3 to uphold his conviction before Justice John Marshall Harlan (described by Simple Justice author Richard Kluger as “a constructive conservative” who, unlike the crazy Right-wingers who dominate the Court today, cared about precedent and the principle of stare decisis) not only changed his mind on the case but wrote a far-reaching opinion that would essentially have thrown the door wide open to millions of draftees who sought to stay out of the military by citing religious grounds. The rest of the Court backtracked and seized on a technicality in the case (the original trial judge had prejudiced Ali’s case by questioning the “sincerity” of his religious beliefs against war) to invalidate Ali’s conviction without setting a precedent for other conscientious objectors, and the final vote was unanimous in Ali’s favor.

What’s most interesting about this movie is the indication it gives of the ferment of the time and the ferment of Ali’s brain, and how they interacted to lead him to the Nation of Islam — which he ran across via a street preacher and Muhammad Speaks salesperson who’s interviewed in the film — where there were at least three choices open to him. He could have behaved like previous white-friendly Black heavyweights like Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson (whom Ali fought in Patterson’s comeback attempt, and sources in this film suggest that Ali was so incensed by what Patterson had said about him he deliberately held back and stretched out a fight he could have won easily and quickly just to punish him more) and stayed out of any of the political and social conflicts of the day. He could have endorsed the mixed-race civil rights movement of which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the principal public face (and there’s an interesting clip of Ali and King making a joint appearance and King saying that despite their religious differences, he supports Ali and admires what he’s doing to resist the Viet Nam war). Instead he embraced the Nation of Islam, which already was legendary — notorious, in some circles (the film includes clips from a 1959 CBS documentary about them, narrated by Mike Wallace, called The Hate That Hate Produced — which incidentally contains the earliest known footage of Louis Farrakhan, then known as Louis X) — for extreme Black separatism and the reverse-racist denunciation of all whites as “blue-eyed devils” (which David Frost tries to confront Ali about in a clip from his talk show included here). In some ways Ali was a throwback to the very first Black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, who like Ali didn’t give a fuck what the white world thought of him, but unlike Ali was simply a good-time guy who spent his earnings on flashy clothes, big cars and hot women (Black and white). Ali seems to have been a man of great native intelligence at a time when there were precious few avenues for a Black person — especially one without the education or the patience for college — to advance either financially or intellectually, and I suspect a good deal of the appeal of the Nation of Islam for Ali was simply that they treated him seriously as a full human being instead of just a physical commodity to be turned into a profit. Ali in the movie comes off as something of an opportunist, originally willing to join the U.S. military as a reservist and continue his career while avoiding combat (precisely what Joe Louis had done during World War II) until his wife talked him out of it and said that would be a betrayal of their shared Nation of Islam ideals.

Ali also comes off as bitter, callous and cruel in the wake of the killing of Malcolm X (who had helped bring him into the upper echelons of the movement and had been his teacher, but whom he abandoned when Malcolm split from Elijah Muhammad and the Nation and started seeking a more orthodox form of Sunni Islam); a clip shown here, at a time when the Nation was being blamed for Malcolm’s killing and the Nation was saying the “white power structure” did it, shows Ali saying that anyone who went up against Elijah Muhammad and tried to hijack the movement deserved to die. The film is a surprisingly rich documentary given how well known is the story it tells, and it’s a sophisticated enough work that it ponders the irony that a man who made his living with his fists could draw back and say that he could not in good conscience fight to kill in a war. When Ali was asked that very question at the time he said, “That’s different. You don’t go out to kill in boxing,” though the clips shown in this film are a bit more convoluted as he tries to explain the difference between his “aggressive” attitude towards his prizefight opponents and the outright murder of fellow human beings involved in war. Of course the film also shows his famous line, “The Viet Cong never called me ‘nigger.’” Indeed, in a modern interview with Louis Farrakhan (and that the filmmakers got him seems pretty amazing in itself!), Farrakhan recalls Ali’s response to being presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the U.S. government’s highest award for a civilian) — by George W. Bush, of all people — which was, “Still a nigger.” The film quickly shows how Ali was stripped of his title and kept from boxing for over three years by U.S. fight authorities and one state boxing commission after another, all of whom refused to let him fight in their states (it mentions a preposterous plan to stage a bout between Ali and basketball star Wilt Chamberlain in mid-air — on an airliner equipped with a boxing ring and seats for 200 spectators — to avoid being under the jurisdiction of any state, which never came off), and how he survived in the meantime (mostly by lecturing — at which he was pretty awful at first when he was simply spouting Nation of Islam platitudes, but later when he started talking from the heart about the war, his opposition to it and what Islam meant to him, he became a powerful, though predictably controversial, lecturer — but also by starring in a musical called Big Time Buck White, a film clip of which was shown here and depicts Ali singing in a thin, strained voice an anthem of African-American racial pride that really needed Paul Robeson in his prime to pull off) until a city boxing commission in Atlanta gave him a license to return to the ring in 1970 for a bout against white fighter Jerry Quarry, following which came his exoneration by the Supreme Court and the ups and downs of Ali’s subsequent boxing career — totally ignored here even though Ali 2.0 was almost as interesting both as a fighter and as a celebrity as Ali 1.0!

The film also notes the irony that when the Nation of Islam was split by factionalism again in the 1990’s in the wake of Elijah Muhammad’s death — between his son Wallace, who wanted to drop the movement’s anti-white racism and move it (as Malcolm had wanted to do) more towards what the rest of the Muslim world defines as Islam; and Louis Farrakhan, who reorganized his own branch of the Nation and ran it much the way Elijah had — this time Ali went with Wallace Muhammad and stayed in the more moderate, more traditional branch of the Nation. There’s also a wry comment towards the end that in U.S. mainstream discourse in the 1950’s and 1960’s the Nation of Islam was considered this very dangerous racial force, while traditional Islam was regarded relatively benignly; these days, especially after the 9/11 attacks linked “Islam” and “terrorism” in many Americans’ minds, the Nation of Islam is regarded as a quirky but relatively benign home-grown American force, while traditional Islam is widely considered an existential enemy of the U.S. While it would have been stronger if it had covered more of Ali’s life than just the 1960’s and today (it touches on his subsequent marital and family history and his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease — which has frequently been blamed on the punishment he allegedly suffered in all those years as a fighter, though it’s my understanding that whatever the long-term damage prizefighting does to the bodies of people who do it, Parkinson’s isn’t one of the risks), The Trials of Muhammad Ali is nonetheless a quite interesting film whose premise is the maturation of a personality — one interviewee even says that it took the Viet Nam war and the threat to his liberty it occasioned to get Ali to grow up, grow out of the need to be protected by eleven white Louisvilleans and become a man. And though there’s precious little of the movie actually showing Ali fighting, there is an amazing clip from the bout in which he won his title for the first time, against Sonny Liston (the man who’d taken down Patterson and essentially the prototype for Mike Tyson: the street thug who was taught just enough boxing skills to hold himself in the ring and ultimately win on sheer power). Ali has gone down in boxing history as a fighter who generally avoided direct confrontation, running away from or rope-a-doping his opponents until he wore them out and could finish them off — yet in the clips from that first Liston fight shown here Ali easily penetrates Liston’s defenses (such as they were) and hammers home a series of combination punches as if Ali meant not only to beat Liston but to do so on the powerful punching that was Liston’s home turf.