By Ani Mercedes, Fall '12 Intern
Few people are as iconic as Muhammad Ali. But few icons were ever on trial before the United States Supreme Court. The boxing legend is well known for his world famous athleticism, charismatic personality, and heroic Olympic torch-bearing, but he is less recognized for his greatest fight – defending himself against a potential 5-year prison sentence for refusing to serve in Vietnam during the height of the war. Ultimately, Ali was regarded as the most recognizable face on earth in the 1970s, but prior to that time, Ali’s faith in himself, his country, and his religious convictions were challenged on a heated national stage from 1964 to 1971. In his defining statement of resistance to the war, Ali said, “No, I will not go 10,000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slave masters over the darker people of the earth.” Boxing authorities stripped Ali of his heavyweight boxing title, and banned him from the ring. Ali didn’t fight for nearly four years as he appealed his conviction on draft evasion charges all the way to the Supreme Court. To this day law students study this case. Academy-Award nominated director Bill Siegel’s The Trials of Muhammad Ali reveals this period of Ali’s life.
Although many films have been made about Ali over the years, none are like this. Rather than being the usual grand portrayal of Ali as a cultural icon, boxing champion, or straight biographical film, it is an intimate portrait told through the voices of those closest to him, including: Khalilah Camacho-Ali, his wife at the time, who is a force of nature giving insight into Ali’s courage, convictions, and sacrifice. Rahman Ali is Ali’s brother. He is a soulful and spirited person who comments on Ali’s inner feelings and personal struggles during the exile years. Gordon Davidson, the sole surviving member of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, describes being at the doorstep of history when this group of local millionaires first launched Cassius Clay’s pro career. And Minister Louis Farrakhan testifies to Clay’s conversion to Islam and emergence as Muhammad Ali.
The film has been marinating in Bill Siegel’s list of projects for over 20 years. After working as a researcher on a 6-hour documentary series that attempted to tell the ”whole story” of Muhammad Ali’s life, Siegel realized that the story of Ali as a complex person beyond the ring, one who was at the crosshairs of conflicts during this tumultuous era, has never been deeply explored. Siegel elaborated on this multi-dimensional story, “It has tensions involving faith, race, duty, and identity. And when you personalize those tensions through the humanity of Muhammad Ali, it gives them depth and definition in ways that resonate now. Ultimately, it is a story that has at least as much to say about us and how Ali’s principles challenge society, than it does about his own transformation." Bill partnered with Kartemquin and Executive Producer Leon Gast (When We Were Kings) and received Muhammad Ali’s blessing to move forward with the film.
Since Ali is such an extensively documented figure, one of the challenges the filmmakers face is balancing popular associations of Muhammad Ali with his untold story. Some of the questions Producer Rachel Pikelny and the team confront are, “When do you stop gathering material? What do you leave out? Will people understand his motives?”
On the other hand, Rachel was excited to discover gems in footage and film negatives that may not have been seen in over 50 years – if ever. For example, while sifting through boxes of film negatives she discovered a photograph of Khalilah from when she and Ali first met. Also, Editor Aaron Wickenden enjoyed seeing what lay outside of the borders of what’s already been seen. For example, after Ali’s first heavyweight championship victory – when Ali beat Sonny Liston in Miami – he made statements to the press about his victory. That famous news clip is used in several of Ali’s biographical films. However, just moments after those statements Ali also proclaims his faith. These are always cut out. The Trials of Muhammad Ali portrays Ali as much more than a boxer, but as a fighter fueled by defiance, faith and a quest for justice.
Right now the film has a rough cut but still needs financial support to pay for worldwide licensing rights of the film’s extensive archival footage. Footage can cost up to $90 per second to use in the film, and at times there is even a fee for just watching the footage. With over 15 different licensers, and transferring much of the footage from film to digital, it adds up. As Rachel put it, “At this point, we have a great film no one can see. We hope many people see it, beyond just Ali fans.” Siegel adds, “It is especially hard to make a film that attends to the value of history when the historical archival material is so expensive to license. But it can be done and with a few more champions in our corner, we will get it done and out into the world.”
The first public screening of clips from The Trials of Muhammad Ali will play at the Chicago Humanities Festival on Saturday November 10th at 10:00 AM at Harold Washington Library (Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, 400 South State Street, Chicago, Illinois 60605). Director Bill Siegel and Producer Rachel Pikelny will be in attendance, and Chicago journalist Laura Washington will moderate the conversation. Tickets are available here.
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