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Muhammad Ali’s greatest fight

Muhammad Ali is revered today as an American icon, one of the most popular athletes in sports history, and a symbol of courage and perseverance. Sports Illustrated hailed Ali as “Sportsman of the Century” and the BBC named him “Sports Personality of the Century.”

But it wasn’t always like that.

Since exploding into the world’s consciousness by winning a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Ali’s brash, larger-than-life personality endeared him to many … and infuriated many. He vowed to beat heavyweight champion Sonny Liston before their 1964 bout and did just that.

It was during his (first) reign as heavyweight champ that Ali converted to Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali – further fueling controversy. When he refused to be conscripted into the military over his opposition to the Vietnam War, his title was vacated, his boxing license denied, and his passport revoked. Again, he was hailed in some quarters and hated in others.

For Bill Siegel, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated 2002 documentary The Weather Underground, which he codirected with Sam Green, it was the time Ali spent away from the ring – “the exile years” – that fascinated him. One of the first films Siegel worked on was the TV documentary Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story, and as he watched footage of Ali lecturing at colleges and doing interviews when he was forbidden to box, “I saw that this could be a film by itself,” he said. “I didn’t really realize how many corners of society had vilified him.”

Thus were planted the cinematic seeds of The Trials of Muhammad Ali (see review, Page 31), a feature-length documentary that will be screened Tuesday, March 15 at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro as part of the Southern Circuit Tour of independent films. Siegel will be on hand to discuss the film after the screening and entertain questions from the audience.

“I’m driven by stories about how someone becomes himself,” Siegel relates, “and the film is as much about us as about him, how our views have changed. He held his ground. He didn’t change. He changed how we thought about him.”

Before commencing production, Siegel met with Ali and wife Lonnie. “I wanted them to know who I was and why I wanted to make it. They were very supportive and Lonnie insisted on only one thing – that it be independent, that it showed all perspectives. So I really felt like I had their blessing.”

Once the film was completed, he screened it for them. “Sitting between Lonnie and Muhammad was intense,” he laughs, and although Ali’s speech is compromised by Parkinson’s Disease, Siegel sensed his approval.

“I could tell he was digging it,” he says.

“You could see how he would react when certain people came on, like Malcolm X.

“I also discovered that Muhammad Ali likes nothing more to do than watch stuff about Muhammad Ali,” he laughs.

The film, which was completed in 2013, won the Video Source Award from the International Documentary Association and the FOCAL award for Best Use of Sports Footage at the FOCAL International Awards, as well as nominations from the Black Reel Awards (Outstanding Documentary), Image Awards (Outstanding Independent Motion Picture), Krakow Film Festival (Best Feature-Length Documentary) and Seattle International Film Festival (Documentary Award). The Trials of Muhammad Ali was also screened at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem as a showcase for distributor Kartemquin Films, which received the Master of Cinema award that year.

Although loath to disclose too much, Siegel is working on putting together another “sports- and culture-related film,” he says. “I do enjoy stories that come from the margins … which get people to think about their opinions and their responsibilities. I think that this election year we’re seeing another time like that emerging.”

Looking back at The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Siegel is satisfied. “I’m glad I got it done,” he says with a laugh. “It took over my life for so many years.”

The Southern Circuit Tour’s spring line-up of screenings will conclude with Eugene Corr’s documentary Ghost Town in Havana on April 12, with the filmmaker scheduled to attend. !

MARK BURGER can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. © 2016, Mark Burger.

WANNA go?

will be screened 7 pm Tuesday, March 15 in the Crown at the Carolina Theatre (310 S. Greene St., Greensboro). Tickets are $7 (general admission) or $6 (students, senior citizens, military).

For advance tickets or more information, call 336.333.2605 or visit the official Carolina Theatre website: www.carolinatheatre.com/. The official website for is: www.thetrialsofali.com/.

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