The Trials of Muhammad Ali appears to be about a specific and very dark time in Muhammad Ali's life—when he refused to join the US Army and be sent to a faraway place to kill people who had never done anything wrong to his kind, black Americans. But the documentary, which is expertly executed (the pace of the story, the organization of the information, the flow of the images) by director Bill Siegel, is really about the first and less well-known half of his career: the group of wealthy white men in Kentucky who bankrolled him, the fight that made him, his discovery of a black American strain of Islam, the change of his name, his confrontation with the US government, his fall into the college lecture circuit, and his return by way of a Supreme Court judgment. This brisk doc intelligently balances his weaknesses and his strengths, his madness and his brilliance, his family life and public life, and his enemies and allies. At the end of it all, we are left feeling that the world no longer makes giants like Ali anymore.
The doc also points out a fact that I had completely missed: The Nation of Islam, the controversial pro-black and anti-white religious organization that was founded by Elijah Muhammad, discovered Malcolm X (and in my opinion, probably killed him), and is currently run by Louis Farrakhan, actually saw itself as cosmopolitan and black Christianity as rural. In NOI's eyes, Martin Luther King Jr. was nothing more than a country preacher who lacked the kind of urban sophistication that could make a black man not only proud but worldly. This was the deep attraction the organization had for the black youth of its time: It mocked black Christians as hicks. The documentary has other surprising insights about a remarkable and also very strange time in American history.