“The Trials of Muhammad Ali”: Boxing Champ’s Refusal to Serve in Vietnam Was the Fight of His Life
Transcript This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form. AMY GOODMAN : This is Democracy Now! , democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report . I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today with a new look at the boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Ali is considered the greatest boxer in the history of sports. In his prime, he was an outspoken advocate of the Black Muslim movement and critic of the Vietnam War. When he refused to be drafted and he filed as a conscientious objector, he was sentenced to prison and stripped of his heavyweight title. He appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and did not go to prison but was forced to wait four years before regained his boxing license. Well, in a broadcast exclusive, we bring you excerpts from a new documentary that examines the struggle Ali faced in his conversion to Islam, his refusal to fight, and the years of exile that followed before his eventual return to the ring. The film is called The Trials of Muhammad Ali , and it has its world premiere tonight in New York City at the Tribeca Film Festival. This is a clip from early in the film, in 1964, when the 22-year-old Ali is preparing for his first heavyweight championship. At that point, he was still widely known as Cassius Clay. CASSIUS CLAY : Fifty-five thousand people came that night. You should have seen the people: one layer, two layers, 10,000 on each layer, 15, 20 on some, four layers and a fifth layer. People were looking down on the ring, fifty-five thousand, and Cleopatra was at ringside. We don’t believe it, the fifth round came. Aaah! I hit him. Here, I said, “Come on, sucker!” Man said, “Break it up.” I said, “There he is.” REPORTER : Let me see you close your mouth and just keep it closed. CASSIUS CLAY : Well, you know that’s impossible. REPORTER : No, no, now keep it closed. CASSIUS CLAY : You know that’s impossible. I’m the greatest. And I’m knocking out all bums. And if you get too smart, I’ll knock you out. ABDUL RAHMAN MUHAMMAD : Cassius Clay was training for the Sonny Liston fight, for the heavyweight championship. I wanted him to be a registered Muslim. When you come into Islam, we write a letter saying we believe in the teachings, and we put our slave name in the letter. Those are the names the slave masters had when they owned our ancestors. So he wrote his letter, sent it off to Chicago. And then they sent back what we call “X.” He became “Cassius X.” And then the promoters, they was trying to get Ali to denounce the religion. And they told Ali, “You’ve got to get rid of that Muslim coach and Captain Sam”—that’s me—”and denounce that religion; otherwise, there ain’t gonna be no fight.” Well, Ali had been training all his life for the fight for the heavyweight championship, so that’s something to scare a man to death. And I was all, “Man, don’t believe that.” I said, “Money is the white man’s god.” And I said, “You’re the only one can make any money for him.” I said, “Hold to your belief.” AMY GOODMAN : That was a clip from the new film, The Trials of Muhammad Ali . The last voice you heard, Captain Sam, who helped bring Muhammad Ali into the Nation of Islam, which gave him the name Muhammad Ali. For more, we’re joined by the film’s director, Bill Siegel, ahead of its world premiere tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is set to broadcast next spring on PBS’s Independent Lens . Bill also co-directed the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Weather Underground . And we’re joined by Gordon Quinn, executive producer of The Trials of Muhammad Ali , founding member of Kartemquin Films, where he has spent four decades making documentaries that investigate and critique society by documenting the lives of real people. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Bill, why you decided to make this film? BILL SIEGEL : Well, I think your last story about the integrated prom, coupled with integrating Little Rock High School, shows both how far we’ve come and how far we need to go. And Muhammad Ali was at the crosshairs of the black freedom struggle and the anti-Vietnam War resistance while he was finding himself. And so, to me, it’s a journey film that I hope says as much about us as it does about him. And I was—I first—I discovered Muhammad Ali as a kid growing up in Minneapolis. I discovered Muhammad Ali beyond the ring about 23 years ago as a researcher on a six-hour series called Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story . And I came out of that, long before I co-directed Weather Underground , thinking, “Some day I want to make Muhammad Ali: The Exile Years ,” because, to me, that’s the most important, notorious and valuable fight of his life in terms of informing us in the present day. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and because there have been so many films made about Ali in the past, and most focusing obviously on his incredible skills as a boxer, those years in exile from the sport were actually the—he was in the prime of his life at that time, could have been a much greater boxer than even we remember, if he had been allowed to continue in the sport at that period of time. BILL SIEGEL : Yeah, a lot of people say we never saw the best Ali in the ring. But I think it gave us an opportunity to get the best Ali beyond the ring, which, to me, is even more valuable, as much as I love him as a boxer. AMY GOODMAN : Bill, the film opens in a just shocking way with David Susskind. Explain. BILL SIEGEL : That was a clip that we came onto late in the editing process. And, you know, I was sitting in the room with Aaron Wickenden, who did a masterful job editing the film. Rachel Pikelny also—just had a baby—produced the film. And Aaron and I, when we saw that clip, said, “That’s the beginning of the film.” And for that reason, it just— AMY GOODMAN : Describe it to us. BILL SIEGEL : Susskind is in London on a talk show with Eamonn Andrews in 1968. Ali is in exile. He’s been banned. And he’s on—Ali is on this—he’s sort of imprisoned in this box, you know, black-and-white TV by Early Bird satellite. And Susskind just attacks him for everything he’s doing in that moment. And it’s a powerful reminder, or perhaps discovery, that Ali was villainized at that point by so many in this country—not everyone—who— AMY GOODMAN : He says, “I don’t even want to talk to you.” BILL SIEGEL : Yeah. AMY GOODMAN : “You are a felon.” And he went on and on. BILL SIEGEL : A pawn. AMY GOODMAN : A pawn? BILL SIEGEL : Yeah, incredible. AMY GOODMAN : I want to go to a clip of a news report from Muhammad Ali, sentenced to prison and stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to fight in Vietnam. NEWSREEL : Cassius Clay, at a federal court in Houston, is found guilty of violating the U.S. selective service laws by refusing to be inducted. He is sentenced to five years in prison and fined $ 10,000. AMY GOODMAN : That’s an excerpt that came from the documentary When We Were Kings . BILL