*PBS’ Independent Lens special ‘Trials of Muhammad Ali,’ premieres tonight at 10 p.m. with a closer look at the boxer’s arrest and conviction for refusing military induction during the Vietnam War.
For those who can’t fathom yet another Ali documentary revealing anything new or different, you’d be mistaken. “Trials” zeroes in on the time before Ali became the beloved American icon that he is today.
Filmmaker Bill Siegel sets his parameters to the contentious climate surrounding Ali’s affiliation with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. By the time he stiff-armed the military draft based on his Islamic faith, the majority of white America saw him as a militant and a rabble-rouser.
Among the numerous rare clips that stand out in “Trials” is Ali being straight up castigated by talk show hosts David Susskind and William F. Buckley. [Scroll down to watch.] Another video shows him in volatile arguments with college students over his anti-war stance.
Adding depth and insight to the footage are commentary from those who knew him best, including his estranged brother Rahman Ali, Minister Louis Farrakhan and the spirited Khalilah Camacho-Ali, his wife during the period depicted in the film.
Ali would’ve faced serious jail time had his legal battle to avoid the draft on religious grounds been rejected by the Supreme Court. Khalilah said he may have seemed unruffled by the threat of prison time in public, but a home, he was a basket case.
“I have never seen a person so depressed and worried,” Khalilah told the TCA in January. “First of all, he came into this world wanting to box. That’s all. He just wanted to box. He didn’t know if he was going to go to jail for five years. We were worried about if he wasn’t going to see the kids.”
Khalilah said she encouraged him to keep working out so he’d be ready to jump back into the ring should the court rule in his favor.
“The best thing for me to do, instead of crying with him, is stand up and just say, ‘Man, you know what? They are going to try to catch you when you are not in shape because they want that money. They want the boxing world to exist. They need that money,’” she said. “So when I would cook food for him and everything, he would walk downtown Chicago and come back and just stay in shape. We kept him in good shape, in good spirits, playing with the kids.”
Khalilah said she also kept him ready with a witty rhyme to deliver whenever cameras were around. She doesn’t take credit for his signature “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” but she gave us one rhyme she did write for her husband to keep his spirits up.
“Independent Lens: Trials of Muhammad Ali” premieres Monday (April 14) from 10 to 11:30 p.m. on PBS.
Below, a clip featuring David Susskind ripping Ali on a talk show and Louis Farrakhan recalling a comment the Champ made after receiving his Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush at the White House.