"If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die right here fighting you," Muhammad Ali says in archival footage of a college campus speaking tour he took nearly 50 years ago. Banned from boxing in 1967 after his conviction for refusing to serve in Vietnam, Ali had no immediate source of income to support his family. That led to the tour -- a footnote in the man's history few documentaries have explored until now.
"You my enemy," he tells the assembled crowd of mostly white students. "My enemy is the white people, not Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs -- and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won't even stand up for me here at home?"
Ali's professional exile, which lasted until the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971, is the subject of "The Trials of Muhammad Ali," one of the year's more anticipated documentaries. The work of Chicago filmmaker Bill Siegel, it comes to the Music Box Theatre in November.
"There is a lot of Chicago in this story," Siegel said when we met for lunch recently, "from the Nation of Islam being headquartered here to the fact that Ali lived here" -- in the Kenwood neighborhood, right down the street from where Minister Louis Farrakhan resides today. Ali and his family stayed on the South Side until the early '70s, during some of the toughest years in his career, as his case wound its way through the courts.
The film "achieves something more than just being a nuts-and-bolts documentary," according to an early review on Indiewire. "It presents Ali as naive, brash, too easily reflexive, but also earnest and truly thoughtful."
That's because Siegel has unearthed rare footage of Ali on talk shows and college campuses, vehemently defending his position as a conscientious objector. In return, he faces an avalanche of negative sentiment. One argument that few have likely heard Ali articulate is the financial folly of a government willing to cut off its nose to spite its face by drafting a man who, thanks to his heavyweight boxing income, was forking over $6 million a year in taxes.
"I would go to ABC and go through their catalog," Siegel says, "and I always knew I hit gold when they'd bring stuff out on film. You have to think everything on Muhammad Ali has been transferred to video -- and most of it was -- but I was asking for stuff they'd never bothered to transfer."
"I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man," TV producer David Susskind says during one such interview in which Ali is beamed to a London studio from Chicago via satellite. "He's a disgrace -- to his country, his race and what he laughingly describes as his profession." Ali absorbs the words, the wire from his earpiece snaking down his left side, and you're left to wonder how he maintained his composure in that moment.
Siegel mentions another clip in the film of William F. Buckley Jr. "He went after Ali, and Ali took him apart. And watching that segment, I realized: This is not a boxing film, but it is a fight film."
Getting the doc made proved to be a fight of its own. That seems to fit with Siegel's interests. As a filmmaker, he has been drawn to subjects born in conflict, nabbing an Oscar nomination for his 2002 doc "The Weather Underground," about the radical activist group.
The major hurdle for his current film was financing. There are Ali films already out there -- including "Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story," a film Siegel worked on 23 years ago as a researcher. Most efforts tend to focus on the man's athletic prowess and theatrical persona. Siegel knew there was another story to be told -- one about Ali's consciousness-raising conversion to the Nation of Islam and the psychological toll of his years in exile.
He sought out the former heavyweight champ, who at 71 lives in Phoenix with his fourth wife, and got their approval. If the film is missing anything, it is Ali's present-day reflection on this period in his life. It is a problem outside of Siegel's control; the debilitating physical effects of Parkinson's syndrome have hindered Ali's ability to speak.
"Trying to get funding was really difficult," Siegel says, "because everybody was like, 'Another film on Ali? Why?' And I would try to explain it to them, and they would kind of shrug. I called it Ali fatigue -- people who didn't understand the need for this film and didn't think there needed to be another. Luckily a few key people got it, including Gordon Quinn at Kartemquin, right from the start."
Siegel has been affiliated with the renowned Chicago-based documentary house since his first gig in town. A Minneapolis native, he moved here after working on the first Ali film. After an internship at In These Times, he found his way to Kartemquin, which, at the time, was completing work on 1994's "Hoop Dreams."
"I worked as an editorial assistant and gofer on that," he says. "And I learned really what documentary film is." Chicago has become a fruitful home base in recent years for nonfiction filmmakers, where directors like Steve James and Bob Hercules have gained national prominence for their work. "One of the reasons I moved to Chicago," Siegel says, "was that I felt like I could do anything I wanted in my life here.