Exiled in America: Muhammad Ali's Toughest Fight

When I finished Bill Siegel's film The Trials of Muhammad Ali, my first thought was, "That must have been some kind of trial for Bill, on so many different levels." Siegel has a history of working on films that confront America's complicated past in ways that many people would want to avoid. In large part, Muhammad Ali is remembered for his poetic speech and powerful left hook, but his political punch was just as strong, and The Trials of Muhammed Ali addresses that cultural impact. Even with its lack of direct stridency, the film confronts mainstream ways of thinking about the past, the present and the future.

 

Photo: Art Shay

 

Documentary: You worked with Sam Green on The Weather Underground, and clearly there's a connection to the historical context of The Trials of Muhammad Ali. How did you get involve with this story? How did the process unfold?

Bill Siegel: The Trials of Muhammad Ali set sail again and again, in fits and starts, and like any other independent documentary film, it managed to survive its own seafaring adventure. Trials' adventure began 23 years ago in New York, where my first job in documentary was as a researcher on a six-hour series called Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story. It was an obscenely well-funded project—[the budget was] $6 million. My job was to immerse myself in this amazing archive of footage and literature and put together background information packets for segment directors. There
was a constant parade of people connected to Ali's life who came through this beautiful SoHo loft, from [writer] Robert Lipsyte, whom I later interviewed for Trials; to Sonji Roi, Ali's first wife; to Jeremiah Shabazz and several others from the Nation of Islam; to some of Ali's former opponents in the ring.

It was a dream job that indeed proved too good to be true: The project heads somehow managed to
spend all $6 million in about a year—without finishing the film. Looking back, I call it "The Titanic." I heard Avid got $1 million and basically piloted the first wave of their edit system there. You had to laugh to keep from crying, watching all these old-school filmmakers transfer from Steenbecks to online, working for days on scenes, only to have their work obliterated when their systems crashed; they were also learning to back their work up. So Avid got theirs, and I got to know both Sam Green and Leon Gast, who were shipmates of mine. When the ship sank, Leon pulled his
segment out of the wreckage and made When We Were Kings. Sam and I went on to make Weather Underground, and I hear one of the Whole Story heads is now a well-known yogi in New York. So all was not lost. 

That was my introduction to documentary filmmaking, as well as to Muhammad Ali beyond the ring. I kept finding myself drawn to this footage of Ali on college campuses, gloves off, pummeling entire bodies of college students with rad speeches against the Vietnam War and against racism, representing himself as a minister of the Nation of Islam. I thought, You can't tell Muhammad Ali "the whole story," but there's a fight film right there.

 

   Ali prays at Hussein Mosque in Cairo, June 1964, after announcing he is part of the Nation of Islam
Photo: Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Fast-forward about 15 years. I was living in Chicago and I cold-called Claire Aguilar at ITVS. She got the idea about a documentary on Ali in exile immediately, and came in with some development money. I used it to do the first interview for Trials, with Gordon Davidson [a lawyer who helped launch Ali's career], at Churchill Downs in Louisville. While I was there, I connected with the Muhammad Ali Center and learned about this mock trial competition, where students from 30 high schools across Kentucky were utilizing trial materials taken directly from Cassius Clay v. United States (1971). Each school was required to have one student portray Ali on the witness stand. So I used the rest of the initial ITVS money trying to develop this mash-up of the mock trial and the actual Ali archival material. We followed three teams (including one from Ali's alma mater, Central High School, in Louisville)
preparing for and engaging in the competition. We also shot interviews with several coaches, parents and students, giving us this whole range of multigenerational perspectives on Ali and the myriad issues that his trial raises. I cut a 10-minute demo. I still think it was a great idea, but no one with additional funding did, and the project was broke (although we do have a short called The Mock Trials of Muhammad Ali on the DVD, and we are further developing that footage as part of the educational
and outreach campaign for the film). 

I went back to my original idea of a film about Ali in exile, and I brought it to Gordon Quinn, founder of Kartemquin Films in Chicago. Gordon, along with Justine Nagan, Kartemquin's executive director, agreed to take it on, and they joined Leon Gast as executive producers. Via Kartemquin, I connected to Rachel Pikelny, who became producer; Aaron Wickenden, who edited; and Joshua Abrams, who composed the film score. All through the mock trial period, I'd been relying on pro bono help from Brit Hayford, a former student of mine at Columbia College; she became coordinating producer.

With that merry band of pirates, along with several others from Kartemquin and elsewhere, I became captain of my own ship, determined to avoid another Titanic. One thing was certain: We were not going to be weighed down by $6 million. We tried everywhere for funding, got to the final round of
ITVS Open Call and applied twice to the NEH, but at every funding turn we battled what I came to call "Ali fatigue"-as in, "Why does the world need another film about Muhammad Ali?" Eventually, Kat White from KatLei Productions came on as an additional executive producer, and we finally broke through ITVS' Open Call, where Claire had never wavered in her support. She was joined by
Lois Vossen at Independent Lens, and later Orlando Bagwell, then at the Ford Foundation, as true champions of the film. I'll be forever grateful to, as well as astounded and humbled by, the list of funders that appears at the end of Trials. For most independent documentary films, that part of the credits is as long or longer than any other part. For Trials, the list has five names.

D: The first big question in the film comes from Minister Louis Farrakhan, in reference to a repeated refrain from Ali: " 'Still a nigger.' What did my brother mean?" How did you land on this as a way to begin the film, and what did you mean by it? Was this the central question of the film for you?

BS: The beginning of the film has three elements: The David Susskind clip from 1968, where Susskind is on a couch in London, excoriating Ali, who is trapped inside a black and white television because he's in exile in the States, having been stripped of his passport. Then there's the 2005 clip of President George W. Bush giving Ali the Medal of Freedom. And there's Minister Farrakhan giving his commentary on the Bush clip.  Taken together, the opening scene is meant to frame the film's journey for the audience, as well as pose a central question: What does this journey say about us? So to me, it's more than Farrakhan's question, because I see Farrakhan's question as rhetorical.

D: To follow up on that question, names, as a framing device, seem to be as important a theme to the film as the idea of a trial. Eight minutes after Farrakhan's question, there is a clip of Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, asking,"Why are we called Negroes?" Then, at 17 minutes into the film, a 10-year-old Kallilah Camacho rips ups his autograph and says to him, "When you learn who you are and you don't have the white man's name, the slave name, then you come back and talk to me when you know who you are." Clay is of course stopped in his tracks by this-and he later
marries her. I would even go so far as to say that she is one of the heroes of the film. Can you talk about the significance of names in the film?

 

Muhammad Ali signing autographs at Nation of Islam Convention. Photo: Bobby Sengstacke

BS: Names are an introduction to our identity. They don't completely define us, but they
do introduce us. The world was introduced to Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay, and he took a new name as part of finding himself in the world. And because Cassius Clay had already established himself as a force to be reckoned with, it was on the rest of the world to reckon with his new name. The film aims to show how some corners refused to even acknowledge it, while others were simultaneously inspired by it, or became part of the movement that gave it to him.  

As a storyteller, I'm driven by the question, "How do you get to be to who you are?"  Everyone comes into their own differently, and in doing so comes to establish their identity. (That said, I think we're all forever works-in-progress.) I think it works collectively too. "We the people," call ourselves "The United States of America." One of my favorite
lines in the film indeed comes from Khalilah, who I do think is an heroic force of nature, when she says, "Growing up in the Nation of Islam was extraordinary. We were living in a nation within a nation, which is this nation." It's complicated, right?  I certainly believe the USA is still coming into its own. We're still trying to figure out who and how we want to be in the world and I think that's true for the Nation of Islam as well-or as Farrakhan says about Ali, "Constantly evolving, constantly changing..." 

D: Names come up once again when Kallilah explains to him over the phone, "Once you sign your name to that paper, you are their slave forever. So just don't sign it. Say 'Hell no, I won't go.'" How did Kallilah come to play such a strong role in your telling of the story? How did you gain the trust and respect of people like Kalilah and Salim Muwakkil? 

BS: From the beginning, I drew up a short list of people I had hoped to interview. In addition to focusing on Ali beyond the ring, another way I aimed to distinguish this film (and combat "Ali fatigue") was by only interviewing first-hand sources, people who were there and have had a principal role in Ali's life: his brother, his wife during exile, people central to his relationship to his
faith, to his development as a person. No historians, no academics-no disrespect to those folks, but it isn't hard to find people with something to say about Muhammad Ali. In the end, I got everyone on my list except [basketball Hall of Famer] Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but his refusal led me to [former track
star] John Carlos, who I love in the film and more so in life. 

I first met Salim in the late 1980s, when he was a staff writer at In These Times and I was interning there right out of college. We'd crossed paths over the years since then, just enough for him to remember me, to let me buy him a cup of coffee. His agreeing to do an interview was instrumental. I'd done the one with Gordon Davidson and had amassed a decent amount of archival screeners before going into the mock trial period. Salim lives in Chicago and Kartemquin covered the shoot cost. From
there we were able to break the project through to ITVS Open Call funding the second time we went for it, in summer 2011. 

Once we had that funding, things moved pretty quickly. [Producer] Rachel Pikelny researched and brought in a whole new wave of archival footage, and I went to work on the rest of my interviewee list. Robert Lipsyte, as I said, I'd met during the Whole Story project. By the next century, he'd published his memoir. I was in New York when he was doing a reading at a Barnes and Noble. I crashed the green room and reintroduced myself, and he laughed and said, "I feel like we've been through
combat together." I had learned about Tom Krattenmaker's Supreme Court role during the Whole Story time too, and I had tracked him down then. In fact, we interviewed him for that film, but that footage went down with the Titanic. Tracking him down a second time was much easier, thanks to the Internet.

Finding Khalilah took a long time and it's a long story, but once I finally got her phone number and called her, we clicked immediately, mainly because Khalilah clicks with most of humanity. I believe in pre-interviewing, ideally in-person, not only to see how a potential interviewee might work—hearing what kinds of stories they have to tell and how they are at telling them—but also to let them lay eyes on me. I mean, Who am I to tell this story? Why do I want to tell it? Am I driven by an ideology, or curiosity? If I'm going to ask someone to do an interview on camera, they deserve a chance to suss me out, ask me anything they want, and we go from there. So I went to Miami and just hung out with her for a couple days. We really hit it off, and she opened doors for me that I didn't even know existed. Khalilah was instrumental not only for reasons that I hope are obvious from the film, but also because she connected me to Rachman, Captain Sam and Minister Bey and literally got me in Farrakhan's door. It's not always possible to pre-interview in person, but I spent some time with Gordon Davidson and Rachman, though not as much as I did with Khalilah. Still, in every case, I think it paid off in the interviews they gave for the film when I came back with a film crew.

D: Near the end of the film, Lipsyte says, "There are so many ways to look at him that have to do with us, but nothing to do with him." This seemed like a really important line in terms of reflecting back on the goals of the story. Can you talk about this idea? 

BS: It is a key line; thanks for picking up on it. It goes back to what I said about the beginning of the film and that central question—and gets right to your next question(s).  The audience always completes the picture, and every audience member completes it differently. If you are thoughtful in how you evaluate Ali, he is a cipher for enough of the last 50 years of history, for your evaluation to say at least as much about you, your morals, your worldview and your own identity, as whatever you have to say about him.  Every life is valuable and everyone's story is mighty, but not everyone packs a punch like Ali. Why is that? In part, I think, because he became so fearless in his ability to throw a
punch and so courageous in his willingness to take one regardless of the outcome, that he now seems to me to be completely at peace with who he is in the world—righteous, lovely, moral and true. As for the rest of us...? 

The Trials of Muhammad Ali, which won the 2013 IDA ABCNews VideoSource Award for best use of news footage, airs April 14 on PBS' Independent Lens.

Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premiered at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.