(If you have Hulu Plus, my apologies for the wayward focus. Also, please invite me over to watch Criterion Collection films with you and your family. Let me know the evening’s program in advance and I will bring a thematically appropriate side-dish)
This year has, sadly, marked a number of high-profile celebrity deaths, including those of David Bowie, Prince, and Alan Rickman. (To say nothing of the recent, less celebrity-based horrors transpiring in my country, a deep national shame that deserves a separate post.)
But few losses have generated as much genuine sadness – and as many self-serving eulogies from professional bullshit artists – as that of Muhammad Ali.
Ali is a towering figure, a kind of supernova around which gravitate many of the most fraught and meaningful issues and events of the late 20th century.
As a young kid called Cassius Clay, growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, his ambitions began and ended with becoming the greatest boxer around. He did, bringing home Olympic gold and smiled fondly upon by those who wanted the respect he’d bring, but not the conflict. The best moments of The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Bill Siegel’s 2013 documentary available for streaming this week on Netflix, zero in on the tension between the Clay the nation demanded and the Ali it got instead.
Other films have already explored Ali’s most famous fights in the ring, particularly the gripping and enormously dodgy Oscar-winner When We Were Kings. But whereas that film zoomed in on the endless madness surrounding the “Rumble In The Jungle,” Ali’s heavyweight championship bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Trials focuses instead on the fighter’s rise, his conversion to Islam and complicated relationship to Elijah Muhammad, and the years in which no state would sanction a fight, due to his refusal to fight in Vietnam.
It’s a natural fit for Siegel, whose only other directorial credit is The Weather Underground, another aesthetically staid but historically informative look at period counterculture. Through archival footage, we get to see Cassius Clay morph into Muhammad Ali, slowly but steadily honing his rhetorical skill. The title can be taken literally or figuratively, as a young man undergoes a series of struggles, inside and outside of the courtroom.
There are moments of high pathos and outrage – the giggling white kids, not yet a half-century gone, holding signs that read “Lynch Black Protestors” as Ali speaks on a college campus should give everyone pause. There are also scenes that sting, as he doubles down on his support for the Nation of Islam and rejects Malcolm X as guilty of apostasy.
The point is a very simple one: no one, not even those elevated to the status of heroes, know what the future holds, and everyone is trying to figure it out the best they can. The white politicians who wax rhapsodic about Ali today would’ve pilloried him in his time. It wasn’t until Parkinson’s rendered him unthreatening that mainstream American society decided he was fit for public consumption. To its credit, The Trials of Muhammad Ali recognizes both his shortcomings and the immeasurable ways he embodied a spirit of rebellion and Black pride.
Any figure worth adulating is a complex one, and, I suspect, Ali would deem us all figures worthy of adulation, in our ways. His legacy is a strange and fraught one, and in constant danger of being sold out by the off-handedly racist hagiographers of the right. The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a welcome corrective.
Not in the mood for a documentary about boxing and racism, and simply unable to watch The Do-Over again? Fair enough! Here are four other ideas.
(1) Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind remains heartbreaking and lovely, and you can remind yourself how good Jim Carrey can be.
(2) Upstream Color, Shane Carruth’s gorgeously inscrutable follow-up to his equally inscrutable Primer, will keep you guessing into the night, and then probably for the rest of your life.
(3) The Babadook is crazy scary, while also managing to be a terrific depiction of parental anxiety.
(4) Barbarella remains the greatest thing Jane Fonda has ever done, and not just because of the space-age orgasm machine. I dare you to smoke a joint and watch this film without an idiot smile on your big, dumb face.
See you next week.