“He is a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughably describes as his profession. He’s a simplistic fool, and a pawn.” David Susskind’s scathing commentary of Muhammad Ali is not how most remember him, but this quote opened the featured film of Pure Nonfiction’s sixth night of the 2019 Season, The Trials of Muhammad Ali. The night featured a great deal of looking back, and was in part a celebration of adored and acclaimed filmmaker Bill Siegel, who directed the film and passed away in December 2018.
Siegel poured his heart into this film, as evidenced by Ali’s treatment throughout. Siegel used interviews of those closest to Ali to present a full picture of the heavyweight champion during his time outside the ring. Salim Muwakkil presented Ali’s major philosophies regarding Islam, which included how he wanted to “create your own mythology” and how “we wanted to overcome yesterday, not someday.” His ex-wife Khalilah Camacho-Ali recalled Ali’s vulnerability, telling him “you can be who you want to be” in moments when he needed encouragement. And former Olympian John Carlos summed up Ali’s quest best, saying “I think everybody’s looking for truth. Everybody’s trying to find himself.”
For Bill Siegel, the path of seeking truth was no different. In the Q&A following the film, his sister Ellie first read Bill’s potential Oscar acceptance speech for the acclaimed film The Weather Underground, and then explained, “The films were an extension of Bill’s commitment and dialogue, and most of all, the heart of his project was to bring the complexity and vital meaning of history to a new generation in order to create a more just and loving world.” Bill’s work ethic struck a chord with both producer Rachel Pikelny and editor Aaron Wickenden. “Aaron and I both were sort of always trying to impress Bill by finding things he didn’t know about,” remarked Rachel. Aaron continued, “we caught Bill’s enthusiasm and became obsessed. And I started buying things off eBay for a while, all these old photographs from newspapers.” In the end, executive producer Justine Nagan observed about the film, it got you to reconsider something you thought you knew.” Bill Siegel’s career was a masterclass in exactly that notion.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali can currently be streamed on Amazon Prime, Kanopy, and Starz. More information about the career and legacy of Bill Siegel can be found at https://kartemquin.com/about/bill-siegel.