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‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’: The making of a legend

Muhammad Ali walks with Black Panther Party members New York September 1970.  |  David Fenton/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali walks with Black Panther Party members in New York in September 1970. | David Fenton/Archive Photos/Getty Images

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Kino Lorber presents a documentary directed by Bill Siegel. Running time: 94 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at Music Box Theatre, Chatham 14 and ICE Lawndale 10.

Updated: December 9, 2013 9:54AM

Muhammad Ali has been so long established as a universally admired, near-mythic figure that it’s almost shocking to remember there was a time when he was intensely divisive and much-despised — and more than willing to duke it out with the U.S. government and all of mainstream America.

Drawing on a genuine treasure trove of archival footage, this conventional yet fascinating documentary from Chicago’s Kartemquin Films and director Bill Siegel (“The Weather Underground”) mostly takes place outside the ring in the 1960s. Though snippets here and there of Ali’s early fights with Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell are effective reminders of what all the excitement was about in the first place.

“The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is primarily concerned with the fighter’s battle to overturn a five-year prison sentence for draft evasion during the Vietnam War. Always cocky, to the point that he was generally considered all mouth until his first heavyweight championship proved otherwise, young Ali’s outspokenness suddenly turned radical when he announced in 1964 that he had converted to the Nation of Islam and that he would no longer be known by his “slave name” of Cassius Clay.

Becoming a champion of the black separatist leader Elijah Muhammad did not endear Ali to the media, but the real battle began when he was drafted, declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to fight in what he described as a racist war. In addition to being sentenced to prison, he was stripped of his heavyweight titles, banned from boxing and denied permission to leave the country — seemingly ending his career.

What follows, in the three years of an appeals process ending in his vindication by the Supreme Court, is an extraordinary example of a man staying true to his beliefs despite disapproval on a massive scale and almost guaranteed ruin. In other words, as a testament to inner strength, or epic stubbornness, or both, “Trials” is a mind-blower. Especially when you see the way Ali stood firm — and seemed to grow and mature — as he became a highly visible lightning rod for all of the most hotly contested social and political issues of the late ’60s. In the end, it’s hard not to agree with Martin Luther King Jr., who tells his congregation that no matter what they think of him personally, “you have to admire his courage.”

Of course, that’s what legends are made of.

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