The Greatest

A probing look into the dramatic life of the once-controversial boxer

There was no such thing as Fox News in 1967, but if there had been, the network certainly would have delighted in stoking its reactionary viewers with nonstop coverage of the events recounted in the new documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali. The film covers the volatile and fractious years — both in the boxer's life and in our nation's — when Ali, a recent convert to Islam, refused to be inducted into the army to serve in Vietnam, a decision which forced him to leave boxing for more than three years and resulted in a legal battle that ended up at the Supreme Court. Although Ali is now primarily seen as a benign, heroic figure, an almost universally admired secular saint, his unpopular actions and his outspokenness caused him to become the focal point for all the rage and resentment then swirling around issues of race, religion, patriotism, politics, and war.

The film begins with Ali's triumphant return to Louisville, Ky., from the 1960 summer Olympics in Rome as a gold medal champion: He's at the beginning of his worldwide fame, still in his teens, and still using his birth name, Cassius Clay, but he's returning to a segregated South. Powerful white men — most of them corporate leaders in the bourbon business — swoop in to manage and promote his career. But Ali is acutely aware of the hypocrisy and injustices of the era, and he eventually becomes more and more attracted to the ideas of the nation of Islam and its ideology of liberation, its promise of a separate black state, and the sophisticated, urban style of its charismatic leaders, including Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad.

Atlanta makes some interesting cameo appearances. It's surprising to learn the city played an important role at some crucial points in Ali's life. After Ali had to leave the world of boxing for several years, laxer rules about the sport in Georgia meant that a fight could happen here. In the documentary, just as his case reaches the Supreme Court, his comeback fight against Jerry Quarry takes place in Atlanta. Then-Governor Lester Maddox has some choice words about it, African-American celebrities like Diana Ross and civil rights leaders like Coretta Scott King come out to support Ali, and Atlantans, with the national spotlight on them, seek to outdo each other with outrageous '70s fashions at the fight itself. Later, one of the central symbolic moments in the rehabilitation of Ali's image in the minds of the American public, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, takes place in Atlanta in 1996.

What the film makes clear throughout is that Ali is unquestionably one of the 20th century's great personalities. In the documentary, we see one fragment of his lifelong evolution. His ultimate triumph was the act of self-creation, the determined and persistent extension of interior will into the outer world (this has only a little bit to do with boxing, or Islam, for that matter). It was an act pulled off with such blinding radiance in an era rigged to extinguish black men that an entire nation with all of its fears and anxieties was drawn into the man's orbit. Watch and understand that "The Greatest" is far more complicated, and far greater, than you'd ever realized.