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'Trials' Relives Painful Past Of Muhammad Ali

Three-time heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali has been the subject of many documentaries. But a new one has arrived in theaters: The Trials of Muhammad Ali looks at the former champion's religious and political beliefs.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The boxing champion Muhammad Ali has been the subject of many documentaries. Film critic Kenneth Turan says the new one in theaters stands out.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: "The Trials of Muhammad Ali" is an involving documentary that looks at the former champion's religious and political beliefs. The boxer is one of the world's most beloved celebrities, but this film reminds us it wasn't always this way. "Trials" begins with a clip that underlines the often-forgotten savagery Ali faced. It's a blistering attack delivered by talk show host David Susskind in 1968, as Ali looks on.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI")

DAVID SUSSKIND: I find nothing interesting or tolerable about this man. He's a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession.

TURAN: America was shocked by the young Cassius Clay's conversion to Islam, and his decision to change his name. But "Trials" makes it clear that this had been a long time coming. As a young boy, the future Ali wondered why Jesus and all the angels were white. But time has proven how serious and sincere a commitment this conversion was. So it's a shock to see how people disregarded it, and refused to use the new name. At the height of the Vietnam War, Ali was classified eligible for the draft. But the boxer declared himself a conscientious objector because of his Muslim beliefs. As a result, Ali was stripped of his championship, and forbidden from fighting for three and a half years. It was a time, his brother Rahman says, that was painful for everyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI")

RAHMAN ALI: You've got to forgive me - I'm very emotional, when it comes to this. He paid a price. (Crying) He did what he had to do.

TURAN: Ali's steadfastness gradually won him regard from people who had been critical in the past, including Martin Luther King Jr., who said: Whatever you think of his religion, you have to admire his courage. "The Trials of Muhammad Ali" interviews numerous people who are close to Ali, including his second wife, Khalilah Camacho-Ali; his daughter Hana; writer Robert Lipsyte; and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Together, they present an intriguing portrait of a man who never wavered, no matter what the world threw at him - which was a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION, and also for The Los Angeles Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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