We all know the story:
In 1967, three years after winning the heavyweight title, [Muhammad] Ali refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. The U.S. government declined to recognize him as a conscientious objector, however, because Ali declared that he would fight in a war if directed to do so by Allah or his messenger (Elijah Muhammad). He was eventually arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing title. He did not fight again for nearly four years—losing a time of peak performance in an athlete’s career. Ali’s appeal worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1971 his conviction was overturned. The Supreme Court held that, since the appeals board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to petitioner, it was impossible to determine on which of the three grounds offered in the Justice Department’s letter that board had relied. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.
But even if you do, or think you do, you should still go see Bill Siegel‘s The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Because it is almost inconceivable, in this day and age, to think that a professional sportsman at the prime of his career, would take on, and steadfastly stay true to, a political and moral stance that was quite as unpopular as Ali’s was in his time.
Muhammad Ali was not just a black man in 1960s America; he was a black Muslim. But he was not just a black Muslim, he was a vocal and visible one, who made it clear his faith was not just a matter of personal spirituality but a political statement too. He did not keep his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and its radical theoretical commitments and pronouncements a secret, and he insisted that he be called by his adopted name, punishing those, like Ernie Terrell, who refused to respect this new identity.
Many found Ali’s commitment to the Nation of Islam problematic, and indeed, some of his echoing of that group’s most polarizing statements are still discomfiting. But it is precisely his unapologetic statement of those beliefs that provides The Trials of Muhammad Ali one of its strongest moments. In a television interview–on the David Frost show–Ali is asked for reassurance that he does not really believe that ‘the white man is the devil’ as Elijah Muhammad says (“That’s not really true, is it?”). Much to Frost’s surprise, Ali does not back down. Instead, he passionately affirms his beliefs all over again; he believes in every word Elijah preaches. As he points out to Frost, he’s given up his title, he’s ready to go to jail, he’s given up many dollars of earnings; these actions which made him, a black man, even more unpopular, and also cost him his livelihood were made possible by the strength of his faith in a man who he considered to have shown him the light. Given that, why would Frost expect Ali to disown him on national television?
Ali’s words can be viewed as evidence of an unintelligent bullheadedness. but they are also admirable. He could have thrown Elijah under the bus for the sake of an easy and cheap popularity with a mainstream national audience, and then, when questioned about his turncoat words by his friends and other followers of the Nation of Islam, he could have performed another backpedal, claiming his words had been ‘taken out of context.’ A slither here, a slide there, and Ali could have deftly wiggled between the cracks, keeping everyone happy.
But Ali kept it simple. He was standing on his feet, and he didn’t intend to sink to his knees again.