Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War saying it went against the teachings of then Nation of Islam leader Elijah Mohammad. *Photo supplied
Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War saying it went against the teachings of then Nation of Islam leader Elijah Mohammad. *Photo supplied

Muhammad Ali is, almost by default these days, presented as a whirlwind of sound bites, right hooks and iconic images.

To many, of course, he is the greatest of all time, his battles with Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Joe Frazier untouchable for drama, brutality and skill.

But Ali’s celebrity, a new phenomenon when he emerged, did not fade outside the ring.

And his strong opinions, compelling public appearances and natural charisma meant he was also a genuine political force.

Influential

The Trials of Muhammad Ali explores, with wonderful archive footage and current-day interviews, why after Elijah Mohammad, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, he was as influential a black figure as there was in the 1960s.

In particular, the documentary, directed by Bill Siegel, focuses on Ali’s refusal to serve during the Vietnam War, a decision rooted in his deep-seated religious beliefs and membership of the Nation of Islam.

It takes some of Ali’s most memorable quotes — “I ain’t got no quarrel with no Vietcong’, for example — and digs deeper.

Through his refusal to serve in the US army during the war and subsequent trial, Ali explains — with trademark magnetism — why the conflict goes against the teachings of then Nation leader Elijah Mohammad.

Central to this was the prevalent racism in America and the Nation’s teachings, which Ali openly endorsed at the time, that all white people were devils.

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam,” said Ali, “while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

To say his objection to the war and demonizing of white people was divisive was an understatement. Footage of him facing tough questions from students prompted eye-opening responses from Ali. Many, black and white, found his opinions offensive.

There is, though, no doubt his stance on Vietnam, so polarizing at the time, inspired many black people to stand against their oppressors.

Ironically, Ali’s initial backers behind his career were influential white businessmen from Louisville. In a debate of black and white, the film shows up many fascinating grey areas.

Ali’s conviction alone is inspiring. His boxing licence was revoked, meaning he lost big paydays to fight for his beliefs.

But rather than another film that extols the virtues of Ali’s excellence in the ring and entertaining trash-talking, this is a refreshing look at a highly-controversial phase in his life.

Ali, as this documentary shows, was much more than just a boxer. n