Ali’s greatest fight was outside the ring
“The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” directed by Bill Siegel, follows the boxing legend’s involvement in the Nation of Islam and his battle with the U.S. government over his refusal to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. The film, which will air on PBS Independent Lens on April 14, serves as a stark reminder that an iconic figure in American history transcended sports into the realms of justice and civil rights by the very fact that he made some people uncomfortable.
The setting for the screening was of particular note, demonstrating the differences in methodology and ideology within the civil rights movement. Contrast to Ali’s bombastic and blunt brashness was Robinson’s diplomatic stoicism. Ever the politician, Robinson did serve in World War II and faced more overt racism from people in his sport, paving the way for Ali’s success. But while Robinson may have been the ideal face for breaking baseball’s color barrier, Ali directly confronted the American populace with its own issues and contradictions when it came to race.
We recently faced the same questions regarding the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman, another aggressive, arrogant black man whose talent backs up his bark, and whose personal history bucks stereotypes. The backlash against his NFC Championship postgame interview spurred comparisons to Ali; the backlash against the backlash accused Sherman’s critics of being uncomfortable with a successful, black athlete not easily categorized into mainstream tropes and who refuses to simply keep his head down to ease the audience. Like Sherman, newspapers in Ali’s time characterized him as a “loudmouth” and other euphemisms for “uppity” - and, like the recent Super Bowl champion, Ali always answered with a win.
Perhaps his most important win came outside the ring, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his five-year conviction for evading the draft. It was the culmination of a long period of defending his status as a conscientious objector that stripped him of some of his prime boxing years, but gave him the chance to voice his opposition to the war abroad and inequality at home, turning him into a symbol for peace and justice campaigns. “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” doesn’t avoid the conflicting nature of its subject, who made his name in a violent sport while building his legend touting nonviolence of state, whose advocacy of black separatism was seemingly at odds with his many white fans and financial backers, and whose pugilistic, confrontational nature extended well beyond the ring.
By Kavitha A. Davidson, Bloomberg View sports columnist