There’s been no lack of films about Muhammad Ali, and no urgency, really, for a new one. But then we don’t need another book about Marilyn Monroe or another Rolling Stones concert tour, yet still they come.
The focus here is on a particular slice of the boxer’s biography that began in 1964 with his decision to join the Nation of Islam: It led him to change his name from Cassius Clay and, at the height of the Vietnam War, to refuse induction into the U.S. armed forces by claiming to be a conscientious objector.
The resultant legal battles, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, kept the champ out of the ring for more than three years of his boxing prime.
Director/producer Bill Siegel intersperses reams of archival footage with testimonials from a variety of still-living Ali relatives, business associates, lawyers, journalists and co-religionists (including Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan), but there’s nothing from the Parkinson’s-ravaged Ali himself.
While very PBS-ish in aesthetic and tone – dry, earnest, linear – it effectively recalls what a divisive, often irritating, even hated figure Ali was back in the day, before his ascent to the realm of myth and near-sainthood.