Fifty years after his first World Heavyweight Championship, The Trials of Muhammad Ali goes beyond the swagger and outside the ring to explore Ali’s lifelong journey of spiritual transformation and the battle that almost ended his career – his refusal to fight for the U.S. military in Vietnam.

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From his Louisville roots to his Olympic gold medal in 1960 through his years in exile to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this feature documentary traces Ali’s path from poet to pariah to global ambassador for peace. At each stage, the challenges Ali faces go beyond boxing to encompass issues of power, race, faith and identity that still confront us today.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali is not a boxing film. Instead, it focuses on Ali’s toughest bouts: his decision to join a controversial religious group, his battle to overturn a 5-year prison sentence for refusing U.S. military service and his struggle with Parkinson’s. While other films focus on Ali’s exploits in the ring, they underplay some of the most noteworthy, provocative and resonant aspects of his life such as his relationship with the Louisville Sponsoring Group, the Nation of Islam and his Muslim faith. Most of the people interviewed in the documentary have never been featured in an Ali film before, yet they are central to his life story and the global impact he has made.

Prior to becoming the most recognizable face on earth, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and soon found himself in the crosshairs of conflicts concerning race, religion, and wartime dissent. In February, 1964, when the 22-year-old wins his first heavyweight championship, he shouts, “I shook up the world!” But his earthshaking has only begun. Soon he announces he is a Muslim and takes his new name. Drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, he makes his defining expression of resistance: “No, I will not go 10,000 miles to continue the domination of white slave masters over the darker people of the earth.”

In 1967, after the U.S. government denies Ali’s conscientious objector claim, he refuses military induction. The government convicts Ali of draft evasion, sentences him to 5 years in prison and revokes his passport. Ali is banned from boxing and stripped of his title. He begins life in exile within the U.S., vilified in many corners at home while becoming an international symbol of opposition to war. As Ali files round after round of legal appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, he supports his family with a nationwide speaking tour in a country divided over the war abroad and racism at home. Rare and riveting archival footage of Ali’s fiery speeches on college campuses and fierce exchanges during TV appearances show him fearlessly speaking his mind as he fights for freedom.

Archival scenes highlight his supporters, including spiritual mentors Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, as well as critics of his stance such as Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Interviews shot exclusively for the film feature many others who were there including his brother Rahaman Ali, his bride Khalilah Camacho-Ali and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali delves deeply into a time when an emerging sports superhero chose faith and conscience over fame and fortune. The fury he faced from an American public enraged by his opposition to the Vietnam War and unwilling to accept his conversion to Islam has global implications for generations now coming of age and facing issues of freedom, religion and military conflict.

Directed by Bill Siegel for ITVS. 

Also on CBC