The Trials of Muhammad Ali Directed by Bill Siegel June 21 at noon at National Portrait Gallery and June 23 at 2:45 p.m. at Newseum

The Trials of Muhammad Ali is not a sports movie. We rarely see the three-time Heavyweight Champion of the World actually boxing, and there’s no mention of Joe Frazier. Instead, director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) profiles the struggles Ali faced after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964, tracking the fighter from his conversion and name change through the Supreme Court battle he fought after declaring himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Siegel intertwines Ali’s battles with an oral history of the Nation of Islam, and somehow, unnervingly, manages to make Louis Farrakhan appear totally sane. Even within its narrow focus, the film still glosses over key details of Ali’s relationship with his religion, including how he found his way to it in the first place (one interviewee recounts handing him a pamphlet on the street, which isn’t sufficient explanation); the tensions that developed between him and Malcolm X; and his eventual conversion to Sunni Islam in 1975. And Siegel leaves the essential paradox of the man—bloodthirsty in the ring, yet peaceful in belief—largely unexplored. Still, each time we see a white man refuse to call Ali by his chosen name (something that happens a lot), we feel what his struggles meant: Even more than the racial or religious implications, this was a lifelong quest to make the world accept whom he’d chosen to be. It’s the simplest take on The Greatest that winds up packing the biggest punch.

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