When I spoke to Bill Siegel on September 19, 2013, it was the day that Bradley Manning, the soldier who had leaked classified documents to Wikileaks, had announced a change of name to Chelsea Manning, an announcement that, for some, was as newsworthy as the actions that had led to her arrest and conviction. It was an issue that resonated with the part of Siegel’s doc that dealt with the world’s reaction to Cassius Clay taking the name Muhammad Ali. It was only part of what made the sports legend a polarizing figure back then, when he changed his name, his religion, and refused to fight in Vietnam. Siegel’s documentary, THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI focuses on that part of his life, demonstrating how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go, when it comes to public figures challenging the status quo and refusing to compromise principles in order to bow to public opinion. The doc is bracing, bringing the viewer up short with the vitriol that was aimed at Ali, and the calm assurance that Ali held even when everything we had worked for, materially anyway, was put on the line.
Siegel, a man with an avuncular demeanor and a sharp intellect, wanted this to be a different sort of film about Ali, at one point even toying with the idea of not showing any footage of Ali landing a punch in the ring. During our conversation, he described how his editor, Aaron Wickenden, talked him out of it, as well as how he carried around, both literally and figuratively, the idea for this film, the differences between the media then and now with an incisive comparison of two people with whom he doesn’t agree politically, William F. Buckley and Bill O’Reilly (hint, he uses the word erudite about only one of them), and a compelling argument for the value of historical documentaries in filling the void left by mainstream media’s abandonment of long-form investigative journalism. I finished up by asking him about his work with The Great Books Foundation, which prompted him to muse on how critical thinking skills had gone on the endangered species list during the George W. Bush administration, how Barack Obama has brought some enlightenment back to our civilization, and the way integrates the Foundation’s love of the open-ended question as a teaching tool into his style of filmmaking.
THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI looks at the exile years of the legendary athlete, when he was attacked for his conversion to Islam, and both stripped of his heavyweight title and put on trial for his refusal to fight in Vietnam. More than just the sports side of the man’s legend, it examines his spiritual and political evolution, and how it became a lightning rod for a society on the cusp of a cultural revolution. Siegel’s previous work includes co-directing the Oscar™-nominated documentary, THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND, about that 60s radical group and the times in which it operated, as well co-writing ONE LOVE, a cultural history of basketball. He is also Vice-President of School Programs for the Great Books Foundation, an organization promoting literacy and lifelong learning.