The '60s were a confusing decade. One of its central conundrums was how the heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, who made his living rattling men's brains with his fists, could be a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Was this wild-eyed braggart really a true believer in Islam?

The documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali is an extraordinarily detailed and textured examination of the man, the time, and the societal forces involved.

After refusing induction into the Army in 1967, Ali (whom a large portion of the press still insisted on calling Cassius Clay) was stripped of his title and sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion - a conviction that was overturned in a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in 1971.

On a sporting level, it robbed an athlete who is generally credited as the greatest fighter of all time of 31/2 years in the prime of his career.

But as this powerful film establishes, there were profound racial and social issues at stake.

Beginning with the boxer's victory at the Olympics in 1960 and covering his conversion to the Nation of Islam four years later, The Trials of Muhammad Ali uses a simple, straightforward technique: interviews, principally with Ali's second wife, Khalilah, his brother Rahman, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, and sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, and a truly miraculous trove of archival footage.

You see Ali being interviewed on talk shows hosted by Jerry Lewis, David Frost, Howard Cosell, William F. Buckley, and others. You also see him dismantling a succession of opponents in the ring: Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, and, after his return, Jerry Quarry.

Coincidentally, the documentary is opening in selected theaters just weeks before a cable film, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, plays on HBO. Greatest Fight dramatizes the same events, but through the eyes of the Supreme Court justices. Christopher Plummer, Ed Begley Jr., Danny Glover, and Frank Langella play the jurists, but Ali is seen only in newsreel footage.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a remarkable saga that is instructive on several levels, most particularly the prejudice and contempt with which Ali's stance was met. How could an expression of principle, which was viewed as rabidly radical at the time, seem a few short decades later so progressive?

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