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Film Shows Ali's Battles Outside The Ring


We turn now to another film, also about fighting, but this time, in and out of the ring. A new documentary celebrates one of the most recognizable athletes of all time, three-time heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. He was as known for his gift of gab, as for his gift of jab.


MUHAMMAD ALI: I'm always going to be one black one, who got big on your white televisions, on your white newspapers, on your satellites and 100 percent stay with - represent my people. That was my purpose, and that's why I'm happy. I'm here and I'm showing the world that you can be here and still free and stay yourself and get respect from the world.

HEADLEE: A little archival footage there from a new documentary that examines Ali's life outside the ring. "The Trials of Muhammad Ali" looks at some of his biggest fights, like the decision to change his name from Cassius Clay and his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. Bill Siegel, the film's director, joins me now to talk more about the film, and also with us is our Barbershop regular, Dave Zirin. He's a sports editor at The Nation, and he's written a book about Muhammad Ali, as well. Welcome to you both.

BILL SIEGEL: Thank you.

DAVE ZIRIN: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Bill, at this point, there are so many, not just films, but TV shows, books, lots of material about Muhammad Ali. What made you feel like there was still stories left to be told?

SIEGEL: It's true that someone wrote, a bookshelf could buckle with all the material that's been done on Ali. But in terms of documentary film, I felt like this story - which, to me, is the most notorious, certainly, and in many ways, the most significant period of his life - had been dramatically under-explored in documentary films. So many end before this period begins, and so a film that explored Ali beyond the ring was missing in my opinion, and I felt it needed to be made.

HEADLEE: And to be clear, this examines the period of his life in which he had disagreements with the Nation of Islam, when he was found guilty, charged because he didn't want to serve in the Vietnam War. He went overseas, and later, that was overturned by the Supreme Court. That's the particular portion of his life in which your film focuses.

SIEGEL: Yeah, just to clarify, it wasn't that he had disagreements with the Nation of Islam. It's that many in the country had disagreements with the idea that he would join the Nation of Islam and change his name. And when he was convicted of draft evasion, he was in exile within this country because the government took his passport away. He couldn't leave the country, and boxing authorities took his heavyweight title away and wouldn't give him a license to fight across the country. So he, for three-and-a-half years, was not allowed to make a living doing what he did best as a boxer. But instead, he made a living essentially by touring the country, giving incredible speeches, mostly on college campuses, against the war and against racism, and really representing himself as a minister of the Nation of Islam. And the film has a lot of footage of those speeches.

HEADLEE: So, Dave, it came as a bit of a surprise to me, in the review of this film, you wrote that it was, quote, the best documentary ever made about Muhammad Ali. You're a sports writer, and you're talking about the best film being one that doesn't cover a period of time in which he's boxing.

ZIRIN: Absolutely, because you can't talk about Muhammad Ali by just talking about boxing, of course. I mean, his social impact was incredible. I mean, when someone like Nelson Mandela says that every time Muhammad Ali won a boxing match, he felt the walls of the prison shake on Robben Island. I mean, that tells you something about Ali's reach and his incredible both political and symbolic importance throughout the world. And I got to tell you, I thought Bill's film was so brilliant, first and foremost, because, as an Ali-ophile, which is what I consider myself, I saw so much footage that I had never seen before. And that, in and of itself, made it a jaw-dropping experience. It really fills out a picture of just what makes Muhammad Ali so dangerous because, like so many people from the 1960s, that dangerous edge has really been sanded off with time.

HEADLEE: Well, let's take a listen to, I think, some of the footage that you're talking about. This is Muhammad Ali performing in the Broadway play "Big Time Buck White," which is - occurred during this time that he was banned from boxing.


ALI: (Singing) We came in chains. We came in misery. Now all our suffering and pains are part of history.

HEADLEE: Bill, my jaw dropped. I've never seen footage like that before. How on earth did you find it?

SIEGEL: Well, I'm a research geek and that coupled with the fact that my first job in documentary was 23 years ago, here in New York City as a researcher on a different documentary about Muhammad Ali, called "Muhammad Ali - The Whole Story." And they had access to everything, at least everything that I thought existed at the time. And that's where I first came upon that clip, and that was really - inspired, initially, the idea of doing a film just on Ali in exile.

HEADLEE: I wanted to play another clip, and this is from the beginning of the film. I thought it was brilliant the way you began it because you started with this excerpt from "The Eamonn Andrews Show" in 1968, when Muhammad Ali, along with the host of the show, Eamonn Andrews, and American talk show host David Susskind were talking.


EAMONN ANDREWS: Now let me just get a few facts straight with you. You're a professional fighter, right?

ALI: I am a minister of the religion of Islam, also.

ANDREWS: A professional fighter and a minister, as well.

ALI: Yes, sir.

ANDREWS: David Susskind would like to ask you some questions. David.

DAVID SUSSKIND: Well, I don't know where to begin. I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He's a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughingly describes as his profession. He is a convicted felon in the United States. He has been found guilty. He is out on bail. He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should. He's a simplistic fool and a pawn.

HEADLEE: Dave, I wonder what your reaction is because the very next scene shows Ali being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush. Do you think that we forget what Ali actually went through?

ZIRIN: Yeah, this is a very appropriate discussion given that we're about to hit the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington because it really shows the way some of these figures are de-contextualized. I mean, when you have someone like Muhammad Ali, who was bashed, not just by people we might expect to bash him - people who think sports and politics should be separate - but by liberals like David Susskind, as well, it says something about who Muhammad Ali was and the bravery he must've had. Even if you disagree with his politics, just the bravery of what it took to stand that far outside the mainstream, no matter what the cost.

HEADLEE: So, Dave, I wonder what you think Muhammad Ali has to teach to sports stars of today, of 2013.

ZIRIN: Well, Muhammad Ali once said - and I quote - damn the money, when he was talking about political principle. It's a little hard to imagine a sports star today making such a statement. But I think one of the things that Muhammad Ali shows is that if you truly want to be timeless, you have to be in this for more than just the money. You have to be willing to risk your hyper-exalted, brought to you by Nike, platform to fight for a better world.

HEADLEE: And, Bill, what do you think? What does Muhammad Ali have to teach us now?

SIEGEL: Yeah, I think he's a lens through which to reform our perspective on so much. He was at the crosshairs of the black freedom struggle and the anti-Vietnam War movement. He didn't set out to be an activist leader, I don't think. I think that that was thrust upon him. And when you're in a historical moment, you know, like he is with Susskind and was at that time, it's hard to know what kind of history you're making. I mean, we're making history every day right now, and so I think one of the primary things we can learn from that experience is what kind of stand do we want to take. What is the courage of our convictions, and how do we represent that to make history and to be able to look back and say, I was on the right side of history.

HEADLEE: Bill Siegel is the director of a new documentary, "The Trials of Muhammad Ali." It premieres in New York tomorrow and then rolls out to selected cities. Bill was kind enough to join us from our studio in New York. And also with us, Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation. He joined us via Skype. Thanks so much to both of you.

ZIRIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.