Bill Siegel Explains Why the True ‘Trials of Muhammad Ali’ Weren’t in the Ring
Nearly all of us have formed some idea of who Muhammad Ali is, as he’s one of the most revered figures in not only sports, but in recent American history. But, very few are familiar with the numerous transgressions he committed against the American government, like refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam war, changing his legal name of Cassius Clay, and embracing the Nation of Islam. For his defiance, the heavyweight champ was publicly maligned publicly by many and banned from the squared circle, forced into exile for three years.
Despite his wars in the ring, these are the true struggles of Muhammad Ali’s lifetime, which director Bill Siegel explores in-depth in his new documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Siegel spoke with us about the amazing unseen footage used in the film, why characterizing Ali as simply a boxer is dismissive, introducing Ali to a new generation, and more.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali opens in San Francisco this Friday, October 25th, and is playing in select cities nationwide.
I want to begin where you do in the film, with that startling opening footage of David Susskind blatantly disparaging Ali on television. When you saw it, did you think, “We need to open with this?”
Yeah, exactly. We didn’t come across that footage until January of this year. It was late in the game. We knew we wanted to open with something involving Mr. Farrakhan and George Bush and the Medal of Freedom. In a way, those two clips are the bookends of the film–how did Muhammad Ali go from this villain imprisoned in this little black box where he can’t even sit on the couch next to David Susskind to getting the Medal of Freedom from President Bush?
Muhammad Ali and his catchphrases have always been familiar to me since childhood, but I’ve always viewed him as a fun pop culture figure. To see him, the champ, sit there and take this verbal beating from Mr. Susskind was a shock.
That beginning is working well (laughs). It was meant to be a punch in the face. It’s also meant to be a fight film, even though it’s not a boxing film. It seems to be sending that message, and people are getting it.
There’s a certain image of him that most Americans have, of a charismatic boxing legend. The “trials” you explore in the film–the draft-dodging accusations, defending his religious beliefs–are arguably the biggest fights of Ali’s life. Do you think the image you paint of the man in your documentary should be the definitive image of Muhammad Ali?
I think the challenges he faced outside the ring–which you detail in the film–transcend everything he did inside it. He said it himself.
I believe so, but I’m not going to choose for people what their enduring image of Muhammad Ali should be. In fact, I ultimately hope the film leaves people questioning themselves, and that it’s just as much about us as it is about him. You can walk into any 3rd grade classroom in the United States and say, “Raise your hand if you know who Muhammad Ali is.” I’d say 80 to 85 percent of hands will go up in the air. You ask, “Who is he?” They’ll say, “He’s a boxer. He’s the champ. He’s the greatest! Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” Everybody has some idea of who he is. There are many different Muhammad Alis, including Cassius Clay. Understanding his transformation and how he got to be who he is tells a story about how we got to be who we are. That’s what the film aims to do. We ultimately like to judge. We the people. We like to take the measure of our heroes and assign them roles in history. If we’re going to do that, let’s be fair about it and give a well-rounded treatment about our participation in that. Just dismissing Muhammad Ali as a boxer or a cock, arrogant draft-dodger isn’t fair. It takes a deeper exploration of his life outside the ring.
You said something interesting there. You think looking at him as strictly a boxer is dismissive?
Yeah, I do. I wouldn’t have made the film if that was all there is to say about him. Don’t get me wrong; he’s the greatest of all time in the ring. I’m not underestimating the value of him as a boxer. I’m not really a boxing fan, but I do still love watching his fights. I think it’s a testament to how large an impact he has that that’s only a part of his story.
Obviously, people like me with limited knowledge of Muhammad Ali likely find a lot of the footage in the film shocking, but what have the reactions to the footage been of people with extensive knowledge of the man?
People who came of age at that time are unfortunately the gatekeepers when it comes to financing a film like this. That generation holds the key. They felt like, “Enough about Ali already. There’s another Ali film?” It took me a rough cut to convince them that there had to be a film like this. It took money to get the rough cut, so it was a real struggle to get the film off the ground.
Was that the biggest challenge of the production?
Yeah. Financing for the production, but actually even more so for licensing the rights to the archival footage. It’s hideously expensive. That’s the biggest expense for this movie. It can cost roughly $90 a second. Look at the film, and you can see just how much archival footage is in there. Don’t even do the math.
I think I’d have nightmares…
Right! I did! (laughs)
Some of the footage is crazy amazing. What’s a bit of footage that really blew you away?
The Jerry Lewis clip. I had not seen that before. I still wonder: Jerry Lewis is a performer, but is he acting or is he pissed? I think when he says, “Will you just shut your mouth for a minute?!” he means it. That scene always takes me back.
I don’t think there’s a bit of footage where Ali loses his composure, even when he’s being attacked verbally. Talk a bit about his strength in these situations which, I think, is even more astonishing than his in-ring toughness.
You know–as a person who’s interested in fighting–how much focus, determination, energy, and discipline it takes to be able to fight anything remotely like Ali. To have committed your life to fighting and then to be banned from it; to have reached the pinnacle of your profession and then be told, “You can’t defend your title, you can’t enter the ring anymore, and you can’t leave the country to do it either,” and to not knuckle under to that takes incredible fortitude. That inner strength is a whole different level of strength that I hope the film demonstrates. I don’t believe everyone could be Muhammad Ali in the ring by a long shot. He exceeds most people’s capacity in that realm. But, outside the ring, the capacity to take that kind of moral courageous stand on principle and be willing to sacrifice fame and fortune for what you believe in? I actually think everyone has that capacity within themselves. In that way, his defiance is a challenge to us all about who we are and what kind of world we want to be living in. It’s down on us to make that world be. We’re all we have. We can’t look to Muhammad Ali or anybody to be that world. We’re it.
Going from seeing Muhammad Ali as this cool, hip pop culture figure to seeing him unblinkingly telling white people that they’re his enemy only a foot from their faces…
Something about that footage that strikes me is that he’s not protected. When he’s on the college campus saying that, there are no body guards. It’s him on an open podium, often with a student standing right next to him…
Holding microphones in his face!
Yeah, exactly! But he’s being exactly who he is, fearlessly. I’m really glad that you came to do the interview, but moreover that I knew you were out there. I know that there are tons of young people, frankly, out there, like you, who don’t know this Muhammad Ali and who can be as energized and inspired as you seem to be after seeing the film, and that’s the film’s mission. I hope it reaches as many of you as there are out there. I want to reach the older generation, too, but honestly, this film is for people coming of age right now.
Why don’t you think this story has been told before on film? It’s 2013 for god’s sake!
I think because people thought it had been told before. It’s one of those weird things that sometimes happens in history where something falls between the cracks. Like you say, you thought you knew who Muhammad Ali is, so what more is there to say? That’s what I was hearing from people who are fully capable of telling this story, that it’d been done. But, I knew it hadn’t been done. Now it has.
I want to get into your interviewees. Who you chose to interview seems very deliberate–they each add a critical perspective to the story you’re telling.
Casting is an awkward term to use in documentary, because you don’t think about casting roles. But, there’s a level of accuracy to it; there are people who are more appropriate to the story you’re trying to tell than others. In the case of Muhammad Ali, it is not hard to find people with things to say about him. I could walk outside with a microphone right now and say, “Who’s got a Muhammad Ali story?” and there would be a line. It’s amazing to me that there are two circles of separation between Ali and the world and how many stories I’ve heard of people who know someone or directly had an encounter with him. Yes, it was very deliberate to choose only people who were eye witnesses, who were principally involved. The film is structured as a journey film, so you meet those people when they enter the story.
So, Rahaman, Ali’s brother, is there from the beginning. Gordon Davidson is there when he’s still Cassius Clay. The Nation of Islam comes in when they come in. John Carlos, the guy from the ’68 olympics, is a really important role, if you will, in the film. He’s particularly meaningful to me because he continues to put the story in perspective as it carries on from there. Tom Krattenmaker, a Supreme Court clerk who changes history by convincing the Supreme Court Justice to change his mind. His daughter brings home the epilogue. I skipped Khalilah! Khalilah, Ali’s wife at the time, is a force of nature. To have those select few was all I felt the film needed. To do any more would be to risk turning into a tribute.
Rahaman’s interview footage is incredible. He exudes so much love and emotion for his brother.
That’s great. Those are exactly the words I use. He is love and emotion, for his brother and for humanity. He’s amazing, and it was such an honor and pleasure to meet him. We’ve become friends. I’ve got to believe that it’s in the Clay DNA to embrace the world, that openness to humanity. You can feel it in both Rahaman and Muhammad. I think that there’s something that I’ve got to believe isn’t unique about that. It’s so loving and vital a force. That goes right back to what I said–it’s in all of us. We sell ourselves short in thinking that there’s not enough love. There is, but you’ve gotta give.
Talk a bit about constructing your narrative. It doesn’t feel like medicine, like a lot of docs do.
I felt that it was three acts. I’m a big believer in story. If I’m militant about anything, it’s story, story, story. Act one: Cassius Clay comes into the world, becomes heavyweight champion, meets the Nation of Islam, becomes Muhammad Ali, hell breaks loose. Act two: He refuses to go to Vietnam, he’s in exile for three years. Act three: He appeals it all the way to the Supreme Court and returns to the ring. It was pretty clear, in that sense, but still difficult not to use a narrator. I feel like narration can be like medicine. Like, who is that voice? If I can say so, I’m proud of the fact that there’s no narration here and no text cards. We were able to fill all the gaps of narration with footage. From there, the energy and the blood flow is Muhammad Ali. If at that point you make a boring film, you should be shot!