Interview: Bill Siegel – The Trails of Muhammad Ali

One of the many things I envy about my father is him being alive at the height of Muhammad Ali’s greatness. My father is the same age as Ali and old enough to understand the significance of what he accomplished, inside and outside the ring.

Like conversations with my father, everything I’ve learned about Ali, I learned from other people. Learning about that level of greatness second hand is informative, but not as good as being there. The most I learned about Ali was a conversation with Bill Siegel about his documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali. This interview took place in June of 2013 and it’s even more relevant today.

“Once Ali took the stand, he didn’t waiver. What changed was everything else.” – Bill Siegel

Director Bill Siegel tells the story of Muhammad Ali’s toughest fight – the battle against the government to overturn a 5 year prison sentence.  No book, movie, or documentary has looked in-depth during this particular time in Ali’s life. Siegel’s had this story dancing around inside of him for the past 20 years. He sat down with me to talk about his amazing documentary, his approach to making this film, introducing Ali to a younger generation, how celebrity has changed,  and if we’ll ever have a athlete like Muhammad Ali again.

How did you get started with your film The Trials of Muhammad Ali?

Bill Siegel: My first start was as a researcher on another Ali documentary, Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story. They were trying to tell a 6 hour series about the scope of his life, up to 1990 at that point, and I could see it was going to mostly be a boxing highlight film. Of course he’s the greatest boxer of all time, in my opinion, but he’s also more than a boxer. I found myself equally, or even perhaps more intrigued, by his life outside the ring and the sacrifices he made – which included giving up his boxing career in defiant resistance to the Vietnam War and taking a brave moral stand based on principle and faith. It seemed to me that most Ali books and films glossed over what I think is the most significant part of his legacy.

His legacy is being someone who stood up for what he believed in.

BS: I think it’s hard for people now. I think they have a fuzzy knowledge that he did something but they don’t really know, for example, that he joined the Nation of Islam and it was extremely controversial at that time. That he was given the name Muhammad Ali,  or that he refused to go to Vietnam on religious principles. It’s easy now, in hindsight, to say he did the right thing. When he did it, a lot of people did not think it was the right thing and vilified him for it. He didn’t know what was going to happen. He assumed he was going to go to jail for 5 years and not fight again.

Ali really bucked up against the system just by being a loud talking black man in the 60’s. There were a lot of racial undertones when reporters would ask him to tone it down.

BS: Joe Louis had a contractual code of conduct that he had to subscribe to when he became champion – not to appear in public with white women, or not to gloat over his opponents in the ring. Ali certainly flew in the face of the public expectation of how a heavyweight champion was supposed to behave. He was his own man and has been his whole life.

Was the footage of Ali hard for you to find?

BS: In a sense, the film’s been inside me for 20 years since my initial gig as a researcher on the Ali documentary. I researched a trove of archival material then and got back to it about 6 years ago. In a way I had a head start or a long time to find it. I knew it was there, I just had to go back and find it. I had a team of people that helped me find more.

I was showing rough clips to a college class at one point and this kid said, ‘Wow. I bet more people think President Obama is a Muslim than know Muhammad Ali chose to become one.’

The best best films are when there’s a lot of interviews where the subject speaks.

BS: There’s been so much done on Ali, it was important for me to find a way to distinguish this film from everything else. The part of his life I wanted to focus on had been tragically under explored. Also, I didn’t want it to be a tribute film. I could walk out and say, ‘Who’s got an Ali story?’ and pretty soon there would be a line. There’s only handful of interviews with people who were there – his wife at the time, his brother, the last surviving member of the white syndicate from Louisville that launched his pro career, the New York Times reporter that followed his whole career, and Minister Louis Farrakhan who’s part of The Nation of Islam.

Did you learn anything new working on this film?

BS: 20 years ago I learned a lot. Revisiting it, a lot of the surprises came from me working with my producer Rachel Pikelny and editor Aaron Wickenden. They’re a chunk younger than me and are discovering the story for the first time. Watching them discover it was constantly surprising and helped them form the film a lot. I know there’s a lot of people who feel like they know this story, and maybe they do. I bet you they see this film and maybe they’re surprised. I think there’s a bigger audience of much younger people. One of the most remarkable pieces of feedback I got was from a college student in Chicago. I was showing rough clips to a college class at one point and this kid said, ‘Wow. I bet more people think President Obama is a Muslim than know Muhammad Ali chose to become one.’

Ali’s been the most fascinating sports character my whole life. I don’t know if we’ll ever have one again.

BS: I don’t know either. In his time, Ali was widely accepted as the most recognizable face on earth. Who is that now? It changes every 20 minutes. The face of celebrity is so much more prominent. I don’t know how you could decide that. Beyond that, the level of sacrifice, fame, and fortune he was willing to give up on principle is something I hope to see again. I wouldn’t want anyone to be in that position, but someone to be ready .

A friend told me that social media has made celebrities too accessible and it kills the godlike way we once viewed them.

BS: That’s interesting. It seems like it makes celebrity status more accessible for more people, and for less substantive reasons. The ability for people to get their 15 minutes of fame now is so disposable. Even within the realm of athletics, much less beyond it the way the Ali is, that’s hard. I think there’s more celebrity and less substance within the celebrity.

It’s easier to send a tweet out or post a prayer than it is to actually get out and stand for a cause.

BS: There are still people who are willing to put their celebrity on the line for it. Then they still get brow beaten. Sean Penn comes to mind. People just don’t like the stances he takes. I think the issue of gay athletes coming out is going to be interesting. It’s going to be interesting to watch that unfold. It’s its own type of civil rights movement. We’ll see as more and more athletes come out – it’s hugely significant now – hopefully it will become ‘Well, what’s the big deal?’ in a good way.  I think it has to be a ‘thing’ first before it’s a normal thing. That’s the way social progress seems to work.

I read a quote once that said, “People are ok with you taking a stance on something until it’s something they don’t agree with.” That quote reminds me of Ali.

BS: Ali did what he did at a time when the Civil Rights movement was emerging and exploding across the country. The anti Vietnam War movement was beginning to spill across the country and it put Ali in these unique cross-hairs that not too many people found themselves in.  It took Martin Luther King Jr. a good while to connect the anti war and civil right movements together. A lot of people were urging Dr. King to keep it separate. Ali, by virtue of who he was and how he did it, brought those two together immediately.

Is there anything you’re hoping people can walk away with after this film?

BS: If the film’s doing its job, I hope it’s as much about us as it is about Ali. I hope it gets people to consider how they viewed him at the time. Once Ali took the stand, he didn’t waiver. What changed was everything else. The mood of the country, the way people felt about the war, the way people began to understand what racial discrimination was at that period of time and in some cases still is. Issues that Ali was facing about his identity and the right to be who he is, his faith and the right to believe in the God of his choosing, and the right to stand up for what you believe in are issues that face us now. Hopefully people can come away asking themselves, ‘What is it that I believe? What would I be willing to sacrifice in order to stand up for what I believe in?’

The Trials of Muhammad Ali will be playing at SIFF June 8th at the Egyptian Theater.