“With Muhammad Ali long since silenced by Parkinson’s Disease, it’s easy to forget what a lightning rod he was during the ’60s and early ’70s.”
“With Muhammad Ali long since silenced by Parkinson’s Disease, it’s easy to forget what a lightning rod he was during the ’60s and early ’70s.”

We’ve been awash recently in reminders that 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ momentous first trip to the United States. As a confirmed Beatlemaniac of long standing, I have no quarrel with celebrating the Fabs – does anyone have a black and gold-label first pressing of Please, Please Me they’d like to sell? — but let’s not forget that February 2014 is also the 50th anniversary of another significant event, the first Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston bout in Miami Beach.

By 1964, Clay — soon to change his name to Muhammad Ali — was already an African-American hero: the smooth-moving, fast-talking Kentuckian had rocketed to fame at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he clobbered his way to the light heavyweight gold medal. His Miami Beach opponent, on the other hand, was a strong silent type with deep connections to organized crime. Despite his criminal past, Sonny Liston most definitely wasn’t Muhammad Ali — which meant he had most of white America in his corner.

The Clay-Liston fight is the starting point for The Trials of Muhammad Ali, a new Independent Lens documentary screening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday Feb. 12 as part of the theater’s Community Cinema series. Admission is free. For those unable to attend, the film will screened on PBS on Monday, April 14.

Ali’s life has, of course, already been examined by features such as a.k.a. Cassius Clay (1970), When We Were Kings (1996), and Thrilla in Manila (2008) among others, but those films focused primarily on his feats in the ring. In Trials, director Bill Siegel is more interested in the personal and political challenges faced by Ali after he converted to Islam and decided to evade the draft, with particular attention paid to his efforts to overturn the conviction that could have sent him to prison for five years.

Siegel’s film is a trove of rarely seen and utterly fascinating footage. There’s Ali being verbally lashed by David Susskind on The Eamonn Andrews Show (Susskind calls him “a simplistic fool” and worse); Ali being insulted by Jerry Lewis on national television; and Ali being subjected to abuse during his post-conviction college speaking tour. There’s even head-spinning clips of him being denounced by Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson.

Of course, the man could give as good as he got, and there’s plenty of Ali’s whip-smart humor and blunt opinionating on display as well – perhaps none more shocking than when he tells David Frost that, yes, he really does think that all whites are devils. To his credit, Frost didn’t flinch.

Indeed, with Ali long since silenced by Parkinson’s Disease, it’s easy to forget what a lightning rod he was during the ’60s and early ’70s. The Trials of Muhammad Ali is also a jolting reminder of the prickly aspects of Ali’s life: as ex-wife Khalilah relates, the man was in his comfort zone when he was pissing you off. He was as relentless outside the ring as in it, and Bill Siegel’s film is a worthy celebration of all his skills.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events. 

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...