“I find nothing interesting or amusing or tolerable about this man. He’s a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughingly describes as his profession. … He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should. He’s a simplistic fool and a pawn.”
And with those searing words from David Susskind on a 1968 British talk show, the “Independent Lens” documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is off, exploring the tumultuous history of the outspoken boxing champ known as “The Greatest.”
The 90-minute film, which airs Monday, April 14, on PBS (check local listings), is indeed accurately titled, for Ali’s life has had more than its share of trials.
There was, of course, the trial in the literal sense, which resulted in his 1967 conviction on draft evasion charges stemming from his refusal to be inducted into the armed forces on religious grounds and his opposition to the Vietnam War, a decision the Supreme Court later overturned. There was his conversion to Islam, for which he was roundly persecuted. And there was the onset of the Parkinson’s disease that afflicts him today at age 72.
Producer Rachel Pikelny tells Zap2it, “There were bomb threats on his house. He was getting knocked right and left in the media. And … he had a lot of people out there who still hated him, and well beyond the Supreme Court deciding what they decided. And even to this day, you’ll find Vietnam vets who disagree with Ali and his decision, still.”
What comes through in all the archival footage and interviews with family, friends and contemporaries is a man who stood his ground when it came to his beliefs and endured the slings and arrows that came his way, never once moderating his opinions.
“We hope the film says as much about [society] as it does about Ali,” Pikelny says. “It shows how we changed over time. It shows what we valued and undervalued back during the time this happened. And it’s really a reflection on how we’ve grown as a society. …
“We think it has a lot to say to kids in a number of ways: How do we choose our heroes? And what does it mean to have freedom of religion and freedom of speech and all of these things? There are a lot of lessons that can be applied to what’s happening today.”