As America debates action in Syria’s civil war, a new film documents boxer Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam during the late 1960s.
The documentary, entitled The Trials of Muhammad Ali, highlights Ali’s resilience to his faith and a fundamental opposition to warfare prevalent today. It also spotlights his rise to the world heavyweight title at just 22 and subsequent devotion to the Nation of Islam.
A leader in the black power movement, Ali forgoes enlistment in the military due to his religious doctrine and conflicting socio-political values.
The response, as seen in the film, becomes one of his greatest hurdles outside the boxing ring.
“For all that’s been done about Muhammad Ali, this period, which to me is the most notorious, controversial, and in many ways, significant period of his life, has been underexplored,” director Bill Siegel tells theGrio. “There are timeless issues in his story about faith, about identity, about race relations, about becoming yourself.”
Fighting for separation not integration
Meant for all generations, The Trials of Muhammad Ali explores Ali’s attraction to the Islamic faith as he questions how the white race plays a role in both denying black existence and condemning it towards indefinite servitude.
He describes Christianity as a “slave-making” doctrine, and finds fury in its prominent white imagery and mythology.
After converting to Islam, Ali, born Cassius Clay, changes his name to reflect his heritage, and publicly embraces a contentious creed that expands his legacy beyond the arena.
“People in the Nation were not preaching integration, they were preaching separation,” Siegel observes. “It was really important for me to try and represent their world view at the time because in most civil rights histories, at least most mainstream civil rights histories, they’ve been dismissed or treated as a footnote. They were obviously a formidable force in Ali’s life and I think a formidable force in American society.”
The pride, confidence and irrefutability he demonstrated in the ring with his quick feet and mental prowess proved powerful when it came to commandeering a revolution.
Countering the white ‘devil’
Though Ali primarily supported Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, he could relate to all those seeking liberation, and separated himself from anything that would taint his cause.
White people were “the devil,” and for part of his life, the boxer saw it no other way.
Such staunch beliefs inspired his opposition to the draft, as he claimed he would “not kill people to continue the domination of white slave doctrines.”
He would rather die for his faith.