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The Many Stories of Muhammad Ali A play and a film explore the boxer's legacy

By LAURA HEDLI

Most of us know Muhammad Ali was a world-class boxer, and some of us know he was stripped of his championship titles and essentially forced into exile after he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. But how many of us remember his involvement with the Nation of Islam? Or how his faith influenced his views on race and society? Or that he used the actor Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry) as his "secret strategist" before the fight with Sonny Liston that earned him his first world heavyweight championship title? 
 
In a striking coincidence, both a play and a recent documentary are exploring these aspects of the fighter's life, telling the story of how Cassius Clay, a boy from Louisville, KY, became Muhammad Ali, the legendary man. Fetch Clay, Make Man, the latest drama from playwright Will Power, is currently running at New York Theatre Workshop, while Bill Siegel's film The Trials of Muhammad Ali ended its run at the IFC Center on September 12.

Neither piece presents a complete story of Ali's life (as no work could), but taken together, they expand and complicate the popular notion of who he was. To paraphrase one of Siegel's observations, the play is like Act I in the story of Ali's spiritual and political evolution, and the film is like Acts II and III.

Fetch Clay, Make Man imagines what might have happened behind closed doors during Ali's formative years. "It takes place in 1965, and in some ways his call to action came a few years after that," Power says. "This is a personal, inner call to action."  

The "inner call" sounds loudly when the characters probe the hard realities of identity. "What do you present to the public?" Power says. "And what are the complexities behind what you present to the public?"

Perry, for instance, finds it hard to shed the legacy of Stepin Fetchit, the Uncle Tom-like character that made him a movie star. As he says to Ali's wife Sonji, "When I tried to get out from under Stepin Fetchit's shadow, I couldn't. 'Cause when you wear the mask for so long, you can't take it off." This resonates with a boxer who is stepping onto the world stage.

For Siegel, the filmmaker, these scenes underline how a fictional work can impact our understanding of real people. "To me, what stood out are the triangle moments," he says, referring to scenes when three characters debate. "It was all on the table there. Triangles are an interesting dynamic no matter what because it's going to be one against two, even though the one might change second-to-second." 

A documentary, on the other hand, can create a sense of historical context and the larger community that surrounded a single person. Though Ali himself isn't interviewed in The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Siegel speaks to a series of first-hand sources, including Ali's brother, leaders from the Nation of Islam, and the last surviving member of Ali's all-white Louisville sponsor group. They paint a rich picture of Ali's life after he refused to be drafted.

"It's a really complementary piece," says Power, discussing the film. "[The play] deals with the turmoil and complexity inside" while the film tackles "the turmoil, publicly. What was going on publicly. The court battles over Vietnam. The backlash on the Nation of Islam"

Unable to fight until the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, for instance, Ali made a living as a public speaker, and the film shows how these forums shaped his identity. He became more closely aligned with the Nation of Islam, correcting anyone who called him by his birth name, Cassius. "I would say his initial attraction to the Nation was more about their worldview from the point of race [rather] than faith, but that as time went on, faith became more important," says Siegel.

However, even though Siegel spoke to many people who knew Ali, he wasn't interested in presenting a simple stream of facts. Like Power, he wanted to create an aesthetic experience that provoked a response. "I think that it's important to be curiosity-driven rather than agenda-driven, and I like to be more question-asking than question-answering," he says.

Both of the projects also clarify that Ali's struggles are still meaningful today. As Power says, "There was a lot of shame around the collective consciousness about the roles that we were forced to play and what that meant for our legacy as black people. It's more complex than: Stepin Fetchit was a traitor, or Muhammad Ali was a superhero." He hopes that by revisiting history, "we can heal and we can come to some understanding amongst ourselves as African-Americans and Americans, and move on."

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Laura Hedli is a writer based in New York City