Recovering History Through Filmmaking: An Interview with Bill Siegel

A conversation about the politics of documentary form with the director of _The Weather Underground_ and _The Trials of Muhammad Ali_.
Ben and Kathleen Sachs

Above: Bill Siegel and Khalilah Camacho-Ali

Unlike other films about the controversial boxer, the recent documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali makes no pretense of telling Ali’s whole story. It presumes that most of us in the audience already know it and those of us who don’t can easily fill in the gaps with the wealth of other movies, books, and TV specials devoted to his legend. Produced by Chicago-based documentary company Kartemquin Films, Trials focuses on Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam and the controversies associated with his religious and political convictions. These subjects are addressed in Michael Mann’s Ali (2001) and referenced in other documentaries about him, but Trials examines them in greater depth, generally neglecting his athletic achievements to better focus on his radicalism.

We took some time to speak with the film’s director, Bill Siegel, whose first film was Kartemquin-produced The Weather Underground (2002), about what his telling means within the context of Ali's life and the documentary film industry.

BEN SACHS: How did this project originate?

BILL SIEGEL: There were two births, if you will, for the project. One was born in me 23 years ago. I’d gotten my first job in documentary film as a researcher on a six-hour series called Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story. It was an obscenely well-funded project--six million dollars. I was just out of grad school, and my job was essentially “Go get ‘em! Immerse yourself in this amazing archive of Ali footage that we have, all this literature, talk to everyone you can, and put together background information packets for segment directors to go out [with].”

In the process of doing that, I realized two things. First, that they were going to make essentially another Ali boxing highlights film—one with substance, but one that still focused on his life in the ring. Two, that there was this Muhammad Ali beyond the ring that completely transfixed me. And I kept finding myself drawn to this footage of him on college campuses, making speeches against the [Vietnam] War and against racism, representing himself as a minister of the Nation of Islam. I thought, “Wow. There’s a film right here, all by itself.”

Years later, about six or eight years ago, I reconnected with Kartemquin [Films]. I’d had a really minor role on Hoop Dreams, in the late stages of that project. I got back to them in earnest and thought, “You know, I don’t think it’s possible to tell Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story, but I’d like to tell the story of Ali in exile, focus on him beyond the ring. That was “birth two.”

KAT SACHS: Was this film inspired in any way by The Weather Underground, which also dealt with revolutionary politics?

SIEGEL: Really, this film was born first. But I met Sam Green [co-director of The Weather Underground] on that original Ali film. Through that experience, we realized our mutual affinity for the history of dissent and radical politics in this country. So, in a sense, there is a direct connection, because that’s where Sam and I met and found our desire to make Weather Underground. I guess you could that film say led back to this one.

BEN SACHS: You could also say there’s a through-line between the two films.

SIEGEL: I certainly understand there are similarities. They both deal with people and movements that, from a mainstream perspective, might seem extreme. That was true of the Weathermen, and I think, at the time, Ali was polarizing for many people as well. Certainly his involvement with the Nation of Islam was considered radical back then. So was his opposition to the war in Vietnam. There were significant differences in the stance they took in response to war and repression. But, yeah, there are definite spiritual connections between the two.

BEN SACHS: Both films draw attention to how far radical politics have been marginalized in our society in the past generation.

SIEGEL: They’re both about recovering history, though the generation coming of age now has greater superficial familiarity with Muhammad Ali than with the Weathermen. You can walk into third-grade classrooms now, ask how many kids have heard of Muhammad Ali, and most of the hands will go up. But his notoriety has been dramatically overlooked, in spite of the wealth of films and books about him. No one has zeroed in on his years in exile.

I worked in education in another part of my life with the Great Books Foundation, which is all about training teachers to build students’ critical-thinking skills via open-ended texts. Both the Ali film and The Weather Underground, I think, are such great challenges to audiences to think through issues that continue to confront us today. In that sense, I don’t think of either of them as historical films. They’re about making the past present and relevant and useful.

BEN SACHS: You talk about creating these links between past and present. Do you think anyone in the public sphere today is doing what Ali or the Weathermen did?

SIEGEL: Ali had this willingness to define himself on his own terms. In the process of doing that, it meant defying a lot of expectations about, for example, how a heavyweight champion is supposed to behave, how a dutiful citizen is supposed to respond to the government’s demand that they fight in a war. His steadfast refusal to abide by familiar constructs... I think that struggle exists for everybody. It’s a struggle for everyone to be themselves under any circumstances. To do that when the winds of popular thought are blowing against you is even tougher.

I think that capacity to represent yourself on moral terms--on truly principled terms where you’re representing the core of your identity or your faith--exists in everybody. I think we’re all capable of that.

KAT SACHS: I read a review of Trials of Muhammad Ali that says the film serves as a reminder of when athletes stood for something. What do you think of the current celebrity culture surrounding athletes compared to the one Ali inhabited in the 60s and 70s?

SIEGEL: I certainly don’t see athletes, celebrity or otherwise, risking their fame and fortune—their “brand,” to put it in modern terms—on the scale Ali did. I wish it weren’t so unusual. Certainly the potential is there. But now, that thirst for fame and fortune is increasingly unquenchable and all-pervasive. I hope the film reminds people of a time when that was not the case—and that Muhammad Ali is proof of that.

KAT SACHS: The film seems to make a case that Ali was more important as a political figure than as an athlete.

SIEGEL: I think that any leadership role he had was thrust upon him. It wasn’t something he sought. He was initially responding to his faith, which attracted him to the Nation of Islam’s worldview as well as their discipline. I don’t think that was meant to be a political statement on his part; it was the result of him finding his own identity. To an extent, the same was true of his opposition to the Vietnam War. When he took that stance, he recognized that he was at the front of something that, at that point, not many other people were doing--connecting the black freedom struggle to the antiwar movement. He was making that connection before even Martin Luther King was, at least publicly.

I don’t think Ali was seeking to become a civil rights leader. In fact, as a representative of the Nation of Islam, I don’t think he saw himself as involved in that fight. The Nation of Islam had a different solution to that problem. However, with that campus speaking tour—and I hope the film demonstrates this—he became increasingly aware of his leadership position. And he didn’t shy away from that.

BEN SACHS: This view of Ali—that he was responding to the position he found himself in—strikes me as similar to the one Michael Mann advanced in his biopic.

SIEGEL: I’ve certainly seen that film, [but] I can’t make that comparison. My memory of it was that the film, like so many treatments of Ali, skimmed over the period that Trials of Muhammad Ali focuses on. But I could be wrong—it’s been a while since I’ve seen it.

The film provided another reason, for me, that this film needed to be made. Not to mention the fact that, as an earnest an effort as Will Smith made trying to play Ali, he can’t do it. No one can play Ali.

KAT: Trials dispels an old criticism of Ali that he wasn’t fully autonomous in his religious or political orientation, that he had been manipulated by the people around him.

SIEGEL: The propensity to sell Ali short, in terms of his wisdom and self-awareness, is akin to giving him seven-to-one odds to beat Sonny Liston in that first heavyweight championship fight. People were eager to dismiss him in the ring and eager to discount him outside the ring as being a puppet. But, obviously, in the ring you’ve got to be your own man; and I think this was true of him outside the ring too. It’s true he became increasingly aware [through the 60s] as he got educated—we all did—about the implications of the U.S. government deciding to fight that war in Vietnam, what that meant for the civil rights movement.

I think you get at something central to the film, something I try to show through [my depiction of] the Louisville sponsorship group—that syndicate of all-white millionaires that first backed Cassius Clay. Imagine what they thought [of Ali]! Here are guys who are used to having control over anything they do. They think they’re out for a great run with this hometown, Olympic gold medal-winning kid. They have no idea they’re on the doorstep of history, about to have their own worldview rocked by a man who joins a controversial religious organization and then defies the U.S. government.

KAT SACHS: I used to live in Louisville, and that was the story I most often heard about Ali, how he surprised everyone there with his turn to radicalism.

SIEGEL: Well, he was radical in their eyes. It’s important to remember that how you evaluate Ali—then or now—depends on what corner of the ring you stand in. For a lot of people then, he was an inspiration and a voice of common sense. “Of course we’re not going to fight in that war!” But for others, he was extremely radical. I’ve said this a million times, but I think if the film’s working it’s as much about us as it is about Ali. Because our culture’s response to him evolved.

Once a fully-formed Muhammad Ali made his decision [not to join the Army] in 1967, he didn’t budge from that stance. It’s not like he changed his mind or apologized—what changed was our response to him. Now I’m getting some blow-back for having Minister Louis Farrakhan in the film. People are saying, “He’s so polarizing! Why even give him the time of day?” But, you know, however polarizing Minister Farrakhan is now, it doesn’t compare to how polarizing Muhammad Ali was then.

KAT SACHS: You chart that evolution in the opening sequence, first showing Ali inspiring contempt on a TV talk show in the 60s, then showing George W. Bush honoring him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

SIEGEL: Yeah, those two clips are meant to frame the story for the audience. You’re meant to ask, “Well, how did that happen?” How does he go from one position to the other and what does that say about us?

KAT SACHS: Ben's noted that it’s almost a cliche now for documentaries to feature an attention-grabbing pre-credits sequence. I think yours is one of the better examples of it I’ve seen. It tells you what to expect from the rest of the film.

SIEGEL: He didn’t like it?

BEN SACHS: No, I’ve just been saying that it’s become a familiar part of the grammar of non-fiction films in the last several years. It’s almost like the films have to introduce themselves with a sales pitch.

SIEGEL: I hear you on that. But storytelling’s hard in any form. And when you’re doing it in a non-fiction, visual form... You know, Sam [Green] and I wrestled with how to start The Weather Underground for a long, long time. Starting it and ending it were actually the two hardest parts, in terms of putting the narrative together. We had, like, eight different beginnings.

Aaron Wickenden, who edited Trials with me at Kartemquin, he and I had been working with the Farrakhan moment and the Bush clip for the beginning. The David Susskind clip didn’t come in until January of this year, but as soon as we saw it, we knew that’s how the movie would start. It made for very clear storytelling.

I think that audiences for documentaries are becoming more sophisticated and more open. That’s wonderful; I’m all for it. But as that happens, the expectation grows for lagniappe, a little something extra. There’s a feeling that you can’t just tell a story in documentary form; you have to add something in order to really grab the audience. I’m more disturbed by that than by clarity [in non-fiction films], because it can threaten to overtake honesty.

BEN SACHS: I recently had to review The Summit, a documentary about a mountain-climbing disaster on K2. I admired the storytelling, but I was unnerved by how the filmmakers tried to generate suspense at every turn. It seemed like a sign of the times—that documentary filmmakers are aware of a potential mainstream audience and try to cater to its tastes.

SIEGEL: It’s an interesting time. Mostly, I feel great about it. I think it speaks to audiences’ increased hunger for depth. But one unfortunate aspect of the trend—and it made getting funding for this film even harder—is that documentaries have been forced to fill the void that was once filled by long-form investigative mainstream journalism, print or otherwise. You see less and less of that. And it’s not that the hunger for it has gone away; it’s the money. So that means documentary funding is focused more and more on that—what Participant [Media] calls “urgent threat” films.

I went to Participant with this, and they turned it down, saying, “Yeah, this is in our mandate, but it’s not an ‘urgent threat’ film.” Which means to me, “We don’t fund history.” That’s a shame, because I feel there’s a lot of urgency in this story.

BEN SACHS: Again, it calls attention to how radical politics once occupied a more central role in American discourse.

SIEGEL: It’s true. Obviously I’m coming from the Left, so when I say the Right has done a masterful job at determining the parameters of acceptable discussion, I’m not applauding them. But they’ve shifted the discussion further and further rightward. I think that’s about to backfire on them; I think they’ve gone too far. But, yeah, what used to be acceptable dinner-table conversation included what is now considered extreme.

BEN SACHS: Hence the significance of holding up Muhammad Ali as a champion of these radical ideas.

SIEGEL: Especially since the most radical period of Ali’s life has been paved over. When he lit the torch at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, that was kind of the resurrection of Ali as a “safe” figure. And from then on, we’ve been able to put him in our “beloved” category. Do you think George W. Bush really understood the person he was putting that medal around? I don’t know.

KAT SACHS: That’s a rich image, but I was even more impressed by the Susskind clip in the opening montage. Because Susskind isn’t even telling off Ali to his face--he’s talking to Ali on a TV monitor, as though he needs to contain Ali before he can even address him. Lots of nonfiction films rely on archival footage—to get back to the issue of documentary cliches—but there’s a sense of curatorial purpose to the footage here.

SIEGEL: I can’t tell you how grateful I am to hear that. I feel there’s so much you can do with archival footage. And, for me, that Susskind clip is an image of Ali in exile. David Susskind has the freedom to go to London, sit on a couch, and rip into Ali, while Ali is trapped in this black-and-white box in Chicago, his passport revoked, and unable to earn a living as a boxer. He can’t go to London to kick Susskind’s ass!

I also tried to distinguish this film from other documentary treatments of Ali through who I interviewed. I was hoping—and thankfully, it worked out—not to use a narrator or any onscreen text, but also to limit the talking heads to eyewitnesses—not academics or commentators, but people who had a direct relationship with him.

KAT SACHS: My favorite interviewee was the clerk who was involved in the Supreme Court case. His testimony goes beyond Ali’s circumstances and gets into the legal ramifications of his decisions.

SIEGEL: I’m glad you didn’t feel that bogged down the story. We tried to interweave the Supreme Court case with Ali’s struggle to get back in the ring... To me, that episode is another example of how this story is as much about us as it is about Ali. The Justices were wrestling with the implications of letting Ali go. Ultimately they were able to split hairs. They saved face and freed Ali without having to set any legal precedent.

BEN SACHS: It’s not just the choice of archival footage that distinguishes the movie, but also the way the material is edited together. There’s a musical sense of progression to the story. Could you talk about the editing process?

SIEGEL: The way I think of it is that Rachel Pikelny, who produced the film, Aaron Wickenden, who edited it, and myself—we were like a power trio. And then we were joined by [composer] Joshua Abrams; I hope his contribution doesn’t get overlooked. Because he’s where the musical component comes from. That guy is meticulous in terms of making sure every beat of the music hit at a moment when it would make sense.

I had a pretty clear idea of a three-act structure all along. Act one was the “age of innocence.” Cassius Clay comes out of Louisville backed by these white guys and becomes heavyweight champion. Then he changes his name, becomes Muhammad Ali, and all hell breaks loose. Act two is when Ali refuses to go to Vietnam, risks five years in prison, and deals with three and a half years of exile [from boxing]. Act three: he takes the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and the story of the overruling comes to the fore.

So, we had a solid story, but Aaron brought a lot of attention to the Nation of Islam as a supporting character, if you will. Aaron and Rachel were really big on incorporating those “Muhammad Speaks” cartoons... You know the early image of Muhammad Ali in the noose, that comes from “Muhammad Speaks.” Also, the choice to interweave the [Jerry] Quarry fight with the Supreme Court decision came late. We were struggling with that. We were worried that the Supreme Court section would bog the film down... but we found that bringing in the fight created some dramatic tension.

I joked with Aaron and Rachel that they caught the Ali fever as we were working on the film, because they wanted to tell everything from the Supreme Court decision onward. Ending the film became our largest narrative struggle. How much do we include to “update” Ali? I thought it was important not to end it in 1971 with the Supreme Court decision, but once we decided that, we didn’t know where to stop! We argued about Joe Frazier, for example, because I was determined not to include him. Every time Aaron put him in, I’d say, “You’ve got to take him out.” Nothing against Joe Frazier, but he was the film’s Pandora’s box. If he got in, then everything would come in. And this was not a boxing film, but a “fight” film.

When we interviewed Hana Ali, Ali’s daughter, in March of this year, that brought the film home. She helped me understand how to end it. Because she raises this question of who Ali belongs to. Does he belong to the world, American politics, his family?

KAT SACHS: The three-act structure you describe could have yielded a much, much longer movie. I think part of what makes Trials so successful is that it says all that it does in such a compact form.

SIEGEL: I think that’s because I was blessed with seeing the six million-dollar Titanic that was Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story go down. I knew from way back we wouldn’t tell the whole story, but this story.

BEN SACHS: Where did those six million dollars come from?

SIEGEL: These two British filmmakers who’d never made a documentary before—they’d only made heavy metal music videos—got a Japanese publishing company to ante up six million bucks. They got Ali to sign on—it was going to be the first authorized, comprehensive overview of his life. And they got a all these hotshot New York filmmakers, this amazing studio in SoHo...

Like I said, it was my first gig in documentaries. When I saw this set-up, I said, “Man, if this is documentary filmmaking, that’s what I want to do with the rest of my life!” Of course, that’s exactly what documentary filmmaking isn’t, and the production proved it. But a lot of good came out of that project. In addition to meeting Sam Green, I met Leon Gast on the production. He’d been brought in to edit a segment, and he had all that Zaire footage. When the project fell apart, he turned it into When We Were Kings. Leon’s executive producer on Trials; we’ve been friends for a long time.

KAT SACHS: It’s fairly easy to determine your political orientation from watching your films, but there are also moments in Trials that feel ambiguous. For instance, the footage of soldiers critiquing Ali for his decision not join the Army inspires sympathy for the speakers. What motivated you to include that footage?

SIEGEL: As I mentioned, I wanted the film to be discussable. I don’t want to be like Oliver Stone and whomp you over the head with how you’re supposed to think. It was easier to be open-ended with The Weather Underground because I was genuinely conflicted about their worldview. I understood them, but I could never support their tactics. With Ali, I was less morally conflicted. But still, when he’s deep into the Nation of Islam orthodoxy and articulating their position of [racial] separation, I’m ambivalent about that... At the end of the day, I want to be honest—but I don’t want to create ambiguity where I don’t see any.

I also know that American political culture is so divided right now that no matter what I present about Ali, there are going to be people who find reason to hate him. Or some people will say I should have put in more critics of Ali--even though there are dissenting voices ranging from Jerry Lewis to Jackie Robinson to figures in the U.S. government.

BEN SACHS: For me, that Jackie Robinson clip was one of the more surprising moments of the movie.

SIEGEL: His criticism—also Joe Louis’s—illustrates how the attitudes of black role models shifted from one generation to the next... People sometimes consider black politics as monolithic. I wanted to show there was a spectrum [of opinions] even among Ali’s peers in their responses to racism, ranging from Martin Luther King and the NAACP to Stokely [Carmichael] and H. Rapp Brown to Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. There’s even a huge difference in opinion between Malcolm and Elijah.

BEN SACHS: Speaking of surprises, I had no idea that Ali had been in a Broadway musical, Big Time Buck White, in the 1970s.

SIEGEL: Well, it came and went in a week.

BEN SACHS: Where did you find that performance footage of the show?

SIEGEL: It was something I knew about from the Whole Story. That performance was from the Ed Sullivan Show. The producers were launching the musical like it was going to have a long life, which is why they went on TV to advertise it. That’s the only existing footage that I know of, apart from a little bit of rehearsal footage.

KAT SACHS: He was a good singer!

SIEGEL: Yeah, that scene is a real crowd-pleaser. It’s funny, because Gordon Quinn from Kartemquin—I’ve got to say, he was one of the few people who got this project from the beginning and he continues to be instrumental in promoting it—he spent a lot of time with us in the editing room, and he said of that scene, “It’s a little late in the film to be busting out a musical number.” He wanted to cut it way short, but Aaron and I didn’t take his advice. But Gordon was so smart and so clear-eyed that he was even easy to disagree with. I’ll treasure the time I spent with him in editing.


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