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Originally published Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 3:11 PM

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‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’: a revealing film with punch

A 3 ½-star movie review of “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” Bill Siegel’s revelatory documentary about the hostile environment in which the heavyweight champion boxer defended his religious and political beliefs.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie Review 3.5 stars

‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali,’ a documentary directed by Bill Siegel. 91 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Varsity.

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If you have fond memories of David Susskind’s talk shows from the golden age of 1960s television, prepare to have them blasted away by this revealing documentary.

It begins with a shocking clip of Susskind verbally assaulting Muhammad Ali. The boxer seems bullied into a non-reaction to Susskind’s attacks on his Muslim faith and refusal to serve in Vietnam.

“He’s a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughingly describes as his profession,” Susskind says. “He’s a simplistic fool and a pawn.”

The clip is instantly followed by a 2005 ceremony in which President George W. Bush praises Ali and gives him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for being both “a fierce fighter and a man of peace.” It’s the nation’s highest civilian award.

The juxtaposition couldn’t be more telling, and it’s typical of the movie’s feisty approach, which shows Ali sparring with William F. Buckley, David Frost and Jerry Lewis, who calls him “a big bag of wind.”

It’s called “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” and it does seem to record a series of orchestrated assaults on Ali’s court-tested decision to avoid the American military. Ali is remembered by friends, sponsors and family as a sincere activist who matured through his relationships with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Bill Siegel, director of “The Weather Underground,” made this valuable film, which deftly establishes the hostile environment in which the heavyweight champion boxer defended his religious and political beliefs.

It’s all about context, including footage of Ali’s rarely mentioned Broadway musical, “Buck White,” which one stunned witness describes as “wonderful and terrible.”

That could double as a description of the experience of watching Siegel’s documentary, which finds wonder in Ali’s boyishly charismatic responses and a kind of terror in how some people treated him.

John Hartl:

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