The Trials of Muhammad Ali Reminds Us That Athletes Once Stood for Something


The Trials of Muhammad Ali opens with two contrasting bits of archival footage: a 1968 television appearance by the eponymous boxer in which David Susskind calls him “[in]tolerable,” and a later clip of the Parkinson’s-riddled legend about to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor from George W. Bush. With its subject now canonized and rendered safe for white America, Bill Siegel’s breezy doc takes us back to the days when the media—and much of the country—didn’t know what to do with the outspoken champion. Evincing little interest in Ali’s in-the-ring feats, the film focuses instead on his involvement with the Nation of Islam, his political activism, and his legal troubles, reminding us that athletes once stood for something larger than their ability to overcome personal adversity. With his inspired use of archival footage, Siegel not only bolsters his case with vintage clips of Ali’s famous pronouncements and his detractors’ counterclaims, but mixes in some surprises as well (the champ acting in a Broadway musical about the Middle Passage). Still, the film never lingers too long on any one thing, instead functioning as a survey in which several fascinating cultural moments are vividly evoked, but then left insufficiently probed.