‘Trials of Muhammad Ali’ highlights boxer’s anti-war opposition

“My enemy is white people, not the Viet Cong,” Ali says in the film. “You want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me at home.”

In 1967, he officially refused conscription in the military, noting, “I can’t go and shoot people, then come back and still be a ni**er.”

As a result, the prizefighter was stripped of his heavyweight title and put on trial for three years, leading to a fallout that nearly cost him his career.

“This was a period when he wasn’t allowed to box, when he was essentially banned from the sport,” says Siegel. “He was willing fearlessly to take a truly moral stance, to really represent himself, his beliefs, his principles and to make any sacrifice necessary.”

Siegel points out that most thought Ali would go to prison and never fight again, including the boxer himself.

“He was willing to do that,” notes the filmmaker.

A star’s fall from grace

While Ali faced the justice system, he nearly went broke, embarking on a second career in public speaking in order to earn money.

He also took a role in a Broadway musical that was critically denounced.

Meanwhile, the boxer was convicted of draft evasion in trial court and lost an appeal. The decision would eventually be overturned based on a loophole in the system.

“What it came down to was a question in the Supreme Court of whether or not he was opposed to all wars or whether he was selectively willing to fight in certain wars,” Siegel observes. “In the long run, Ali demonstrated his sincerity. He’s articulated well the difference between being a boxer in the ring and a soldier with a gun.”

As the story goes, Ali would box again, becoming a three-time world heavyweight champion, BBC’s Sports Personality of the Century and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the 20th Century.

A war worth fighting

In the current political climate, where the American people and leaders stand divided on the crisis in Syria, Siegel recognizes the parallel between Ali’s decision and resistance towards the conflict at hand.

The question remains the same.

“What war is really worth fighting?” Siegel comments. “You can’t sit on the fence at a time like this. Whatever, however this plays out, you need to decide now where you are because in 10 years, you will need to be at peace with yourself and how you lived your life, and how you represented the stance you’re willing to take. Muhammad Ali, I don’t have any doubt he’s at peace with all that he’s endured in the ring and out.”

To make the film, Siegel interviewed Ali’s family and business associates, including his brother Rahman, daughter, former managers, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who spoke on the subject for the first time. He also received approval from Ali and his wife.

The documentary has opened in New York, and will roll out nationwide through September. It contains rare footage of the boxer defending his beliefs around the country with everyone from television journalists to disagreeable college students.

Truth be told, Ali made be one of the boldest and most remarkable spirits in the civil rights and anti-war movements, however Siegel does not see him as a standalone fighter.

“Everybody has the capacity within themselves to take a stand like Ali did, but not everyone’s willing to do it,” he points out, citing Antoinette Tuff, the bookkeeper in Atlanta who recently warded off a school shooter, as an example. “She’s proof of the capacity to rise above all the noise, and truly make a stand for humanity. Whatever ridiculous senator said that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun was proven wrong. She stopped a troubled guy with a gun with an open heart, and I think that’s what Ali did.”

Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @CourtGarcia