You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

“The Trials of Muhammad Ali”: Boxing Champ’s Refusal to Serve in Vietnam Was the Fight of His Life

Media Options

In a broadcast exclusive, we air excerpts from a new documentary that examines the struggle Muhammad Ali faced in his conversion to Islam, his refusal to fight in Vietnam, and the years of exile that followed before his eventual return to the ring. Ali is considered the greatest boxer in the history of sports. When he refused to be drafted into the military and filed as a conscientious objector, he was sentenced to prison and stripped of his heavyweight title. He appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and did not go to prison, but he was forced to wait four years before regained his boxing license. “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” has its world premiere tonight in New York City at the Tribeca Film Festival. “This isn’t a boxing film, but it is a fight film,” says our guest, Director Bill Siegel. “It’s a journey film that I hope says as much about us as it does about him.” We also speak with Gordon Quinn, the film’s executive producer.

Related Story

StoryApr 09, 2007Sports Columnist Dave Zirin on Muhammad Ali’s Career and His Groundbreaking Political Involvement
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today with a new look at the boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Ali is considered the greatest boxer in the history of sports. In his prime, he was an outspoken advocate of the Black Muslim movement and critic of the Vietnam War. When he refused to be drafted and he filed as a conscientious objector, he was sentenced to prison and stripped of his heavyweight title. He appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and did not go to prison but was forced to wait four years before regained his boxing license.

Well, in a broadcast exclusive, we bring you excerpts from a new documentary that examines the struggle Ali faced in his conversion to Islam, his refusal to fight, and the years of exile that followed before his eventual return to the ring. The film is called The Trials of Muhammad Ali, and it has its world premiere tonight in New York City at the Tribeca Film Festival. This is a clip from early in the film, in 1964, when the 22-year-old Ali is preparing for his first heavyweight championship. At that point, he was still widely known as Cassius Clay.

CASSIUS CLAY: Fifty-five thousand people came that night. You should have seen the people: one layer, two layers, 10,000 on each layer, 15, 20 on some, four layers and a fifth layer. People were looking down on the ring, fifty-five thousand, and Cleopatra was at ringside. We don’t believe it, the fifth round came. Aaah! I hit him. Here, I said, “Come on, sucker!” Man said, “Break it up.” I said, “There he is.”

REPORTER: Let me see you close your mouth and just keep it closed.

CASSIUS CLAY: Well, you know that’s impossible.

REPORTER: No, no, now keep it closed.

CASSIUS CLAY: You know that’s impossible. I’m the greatest. And I’m knocking out all bums. And if you get too smart, I’ll knock you out.

ABDUL RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: Cassius Clay was training for the Sonny Liston fight, for the heavyweight championship. I wanted him to be a registered Muslim. When you come into Islam, we write a letter saying we believe in the teachings, and we put our slave name in the letter. Those are the names the slave masters had when they owned our ancestors. So he wrote his letter, sent it off to Chicago. And then they sent back what we call “X.” He became “Cassius X.”

And then the promoters, they was trying to get Ali to denounce the religion. And they told Ali, “You’ve got to get rid of them Muslim cooks and Captain Sam”—that’s me—”and denounce that religion; otherwise, there ain’t gonna be no fight.” Well, Ali had been training all his life for the fight for the heavyweight championship, so that’s something to scare a man to death. And I was all, “Man, don’t believe that.” I said, “Money is the white man’s god.” And I said, “You’re the only one can make any money for him.” I said, “Hold to your belief.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from the new film, The Trials of Muhammad Ali. The last voice you heard, Captain Sam, who helped bring Muhammad Ali into the Nation of Islam, which gave him the name Muhammad Ali.

For more, we’re joined by the film’s director, Bill Siegel, ahead of its world premiere tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is set to broadcast next spring on PBS’s Independent Lens. Bill also co-directed the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Weather Underground. And we’re joined by Gordon Quinn, executive producer of The Trials of Muhammad Ali, founding member of Kartemquin Films, where he has spent four decades making documentaries that investigate and critique society by documenting the lives of real people.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Bill, why you decided to make this film?

BILL SIEGEL: Well, I think your last story about the integrated prom, coupled with integrating Little Rock High School, shows both how far we’ve come and how far we need to go. And Muhammad Ali was at the crosshairs of the black freedom struggle and the anti-Vietnam War resistance while he was finding himself. And so, to me, it’s a journey film that I hope says as much about us as it does about him. And I was—I first—I discovered Muhammad Ali as a kid growing up in Minneapolis. I discovered Muhammad Ali beyond the ring about 23 years ago as a researcher on a six-hour series called Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story. And I came out of that, long before I co-directed Weather Underground, thinking, “Some day I want to make Muhammad Ali: The Exile Years,” because, to me, that’s the most important, notorious and valuable fight of his life in terms of informing us in the present day.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and because there have been so many films made about Ali in the past, and most focusing obviously on his incredible skills as a boxer, those years in exile from the sport were actually the—he was in the prime of his life at that time, could have been a much greater boxer than even we remember, if he had been allowed to continue in the sport at that period of time.

BILL SIEGEL: Yeah, a lot of people say we never saw the best Ali in the ring. But I think it gave us an opportunity to get the best Ali beyond the ring, which, to me, is even more valuable, as much as I love him as a boxer.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, the film opens in a just shocking way with David Susskind. Explain.

BILL SIEGEL: That was a clip that we came onto late in the editing process. And, you know, I was sitting in the room with Aaron Wickenden, who did a masterful job editing the film. Rachel Pikelny also—just had a baby—produced the film. And Aaron and I, when we saw that clip, said, “That’s the beginning of the film.” And for that reason, it just—

AMY GOODMAN: Describe it to us.

BILL SIEGEL: Susskind is in London on a talk show with Eamonn Andrews in 1968. Ali is in exile. He’s been banned. And he’s on—Ali is on this—he’s sort of imprisoned in this box, you know, black-and-white TV by Early Bird satellite. And Susskind just attacks him for everything he’s doing in that moment. And it’s a powerful reminder, or perhaps discovery, that Ali was villainized at that point by so many in this country—not everyone—who—

AMY GOODMAN: He says, “I don’t even want to talk to you.”


AMY GOODMAN: “You are a felon.” And he went on and on.



BILL SIEGEL: Yeah, incredible.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of a news report from Muhammad Ali, sentenced to prison and stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to fight in Vietnam.

NEWSREEL: Cassius Clay, at a federal court in Houston, is found guilty of violating the U.S. selective service laws by refusing to be inducted. He is sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt that came from the documentary When We Were Kings.

BILL SIEGEL: By Leon Gast, who I met on this 23-years-ago film. And Leon—that film collapsed. Leon pulled his segment out; that became When We Were Kings. And he’s another executive producer on this film.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Gordon, your decision to get involved with this project and to make this film, what it means for you?

GORDON QUINN: Well, there’s a personal dimension, that when Ali was fighting with the draft and refusing to go to Vietnam and took this moral stand, I was, too. I was a student at the University of Chicago. There’s a rally in the film that I actually went to. And he’s the only sports figure that I’ve ever cheered for flat out.

But Kartemquin’s model is, producers come to us with something—it’s not just their next film; it’s something that they’re passionate about. And Bill was—I mean, he—actually, how long has it been that we were—

BILL SIEGEL: Eight years.

GORDON QUINN: Eight years that—when he first came to Kartemquin. And it was like this was the film he had to make. This was—you know, he just had this passion for it. And that’s really what we care about at Kartemquin. We’re producer-driven. It’s a collaborative atmosphere. There’s a team of people around. But we want someone who is really, you know, not just building their résumé and their career, but this is the story I have to tell.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from this film you chose to produce, The Trials of Muhammad Ali. This is later in the movie, after Ali has refused to fight in Vietnam. We hear from Ali’s former wife, Khalilah Ali; Ali himself; and Captain Sam, who helped bring Muhammad Ali into the Nation of Islam; as well as Ali’s brother, Rahman Ali.

KHALILAH ALI: Somebody would come out of nowhere and say, “You draft-dodging nigger, go home!” Well, he didn’t like that at all. I said, “We have to do this for a living, man. Don’t worry about what people say about you. You’ve got to keep going.” And then he talked back at me and says, “You’re not out there getting embarrassed. I’m out there getting embarrassed. What would you do if somebody did that to you?”

MUHAMMAD ALI: I’m not going to help nobody get something our Negroes don’t have. If I’m going to die, I’ll die now right here fighting you. You’re my enemy. My enemy is the white people, not the Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese. You’re my opposer when I want freedom. You’re my opposer when I want justice. You’re my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.

KHALILAH ALI: The exiled years were the worst years of me and Ali’s life.

ABDUL RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: In Islam, we feel like when we’re being attacked unjustly, we feel like it’s a trial period for us, and if we stand on righteousness and truth, God going to bring us through it. And that’s the way I saw Ali.

RAHMAN ALI: I suffered with my brother. He suffered what I suffered. We’re like that. I felt the way he felt. I share my brother’s pain. I share his—

AMY GOODMAN: Rahman is crying.

RAHMAN ALI: You’ve got to forgive me. I get very emotional when it comes to this. He paid a price. He did what he had to do. He was the champ.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rahman, Muhammad Ali’s brother. Bill Siegel, tell us about the Supreme Court case.

BILL SIEGEL: So, Ali was in exile for three-and-a-half years. His case was on appeal the whole time. He’s trying to get back in the ring. The Supreme Court eventually takes the case. And the climax of the film is the process through which they came to a decision. Ali, as one of the interviewees says, had one foot and three toes in prison until the very last moment, when Justice Harlan changes his mind. And I’ll let people come see the film to see the rest of that story.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s an amazing story. I mean, you are interviewing—and it’s amazing to think that these folks have rarely been interviewed. The Supreme Court justice clerk of Judge Harlan, who originally voted for—against Muhammad Ali, a five-to-three decision, right, because Thurgood Marshall had recused himself because he worked with the NAACP.

BILL SIEGEL: Right. And, you know, it comes out eight to nothing in favor of Ali. And the process through which that change happens is, you know, to me, an important part of the story.

I want to say one thing about that last clip, because, to me, that clip demonstrates that this isn’t a boxing film, but it a fight film, and you can see Ali, the fighter, in that film. And also, I could walk down the streets of New York with a microphone and say, “Who has a Muhammad Ali story to tell?” And pretty soon there would be a line. And so, it was important to me to distinguish this film from all the other films about Ali by making it intimate—his wife at the time, his brother, people who were there. It’s a small amount of interviewees, and I hope the power of that intimacy comes through in that clip with Rahman there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Gordon, in terms of producing the film, any particular difficulties that you didn’t expect along the process? Because you’ve done many over the years.

GORDON QUINN: Well, you know, it never gets any easier. You know, after we did Hoop Dreams with Steve James and it broke so big, we thought, well, fundraising will be easier. But it’s been just as hard from right from the start. ITVS came in on this film, and the Ford Foundation was a big supporter near the end. But we had some rocky moments over the course where we just didn’t have the funds. And of course there’s a lot of rights issues.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s amazing to see him winning the Medal of Freedom, Muhammad Ali, being awarded it in 2005 by President Bush. And President Bush is sort reaching for his hand—tell me if I’m reaching here, but it looked to me like Muhammad Ali pulled his hand away.

BILL SIEGEL: I don’t know. You know, I don’t want to speculate as to what was going through Ali’s mind. I do know that—it’s not in the film, but later, former President Bush kind of stands back in a boxing pose, and Ali gives him this [motion].

AMY GOODMAN: Gives him the sign like “You’re crazy.”

GORDON QUINN: Yeah. I mean, he does seem to really—he knows what’s going on. He’s very sharp, to this day. And I mean, for me, the core of the film is, here’s a guy who took a moral stand. It had to do with his religion. America has never understood who the Black Muslims are and what they’re about. And that’s another dimension of the film that I think is terribly exciting. And, you know, here are people are just talking about their faith in a way that we never hear in America.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Bill Siegel directed the new documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali. It’ll premiere tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. Gordon Quinn is the film’s executive producer.

That does it for our show. Tomorrow we’ll be live-streaming at 2:00 our event at Harvard University Science Center B, a big event with Noam Chomsky and Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars. I’ll be moderating. I hope to see folks there, or you can see us online at

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

Sports Columnist Dave Zirin on Muhammad Ali’s Career and His Groundbreaking Political Involvement

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation