Although Ken Burns Mohamed Ali opens in the era of black and white television, Ali’s mind remains so alive today that it’s shocking to see him dance in colorless footage as Sonny Liston stalks the ring seeking to strike the blow that will close the child’s mouth.
This is what much of the crowd and much of the country wanted and expected on February 25, 1964. Ali, just 22, was brash and self-righteous, “a black man who boasted, ”in Burns’ words. In a country where diehard Jim Crow South and North resisted the civil rights movement, a mighty and mighty black boxer could not be tolerated. But Liston never landed the punch, and Ali, fighting like Cassius Clay, knocked him out.
And that’s how the legend began.
In four timely and revealing parts of Burns Mohamed Ali debuts on PBS on September 19. Eight hours might seem like a long time for a man’s story, but as you watch the story unfold, you start to wonder how the filmmakers are going to fit it all in. Five years after his death, in Me, Too Much and the Black Lives Matter Era, Ali’s story is replete with relevance. Seen as a whole, his flaws and everything, the man who called himself taller looks taller than ever.
I have watched almost all of Burns’ biographies, but Ali is the first of his subjects whose public life I have followed in real time from start to finish. While I learned a lot of new things from the incidents and perspectives depicted in the film, my take in the end is that Burns was right. Every step of the way, the Ali I have known is the man whose life is told on film.
To retrace the arc of this life, Burns and his colleagues followed the path of previous documentaries made by Florentine Films, Burns’ company in Walpole, NH. The filmmakers interviewed 40 subjects for about two hours each. In addition to two of Ali’s four wives, some of his children and important figures in his career, they spoke to sports journalists who covered him, two of his biographers, historians, professors. , poets and even novelist Walter Mosley. In the film, former world champion Larry Holmes describes his fight with Ali, and former boxer Michael Bentt gives insight into Ali’s great fights. Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka recites his elegy for Ali. Its final stanza captures the essence of the film:
But the wizard is gone,
The lion withdrawn into a den of time and space
Inaccessible like the sacred lining of a crown
When kings were kings and lords of rhyme and rhythm.
The enchantment is over, but the spell remains.
Ali’s universe always extended beyond the 400 square feet of a boxing ring. He used the megaphone of fame to talk about equal rights. With the country torn apart by the Vietnam War, he resisted conscription for a matter of conscience; his feud, he said, was with the American racists, not the Vietnamese. Despite the eccentricity of the Nation of Islam, which he joined very early on, the physical challenges of his last days took him on a true spiritual journey. His actions have earned him worldwide fame and admiration. Personally, he was so charming that when he performed magic tricks, he explained them afterwards, preferring not to leave his audience perplexed by what they had just seen.
Liston’s first fight took place during a time of violence and turmoil in America. In the previous year, racists had murdered NAACP leader Medgar Evers in his driveway and bombed a Birmingham church, killing four black schoolgirls. An assassin had killed President Kennedy in Dallas. Before Liston and Ali met for a rematch with the same outcome, Klansman slaughtered three voting rights activists in Mississippi.
Ali became a lightning rod in the 1960s, a decade dominated by the generation gap and the rage of young people against racial injustice and the Vietnam War. Was he a rebel or a conscientious objector? A racer on the race or a man who speaks his own truth? Hate it or love it, like New Yorker editor David Remnick says in the film, “you had an opinion”.
The filmmakers focus on the great fights of Ali’s two decades as a professional boxer: the first clash with Liston, three increasingly brutal fights with Joe Frazier and the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali’s stunning upset against the younger and stronger George Foreman. Like many fighters before him, Ali has been in the ring for too long. He was almost 40 years old and shrunk a lot in his last fight. Its decline, atrocious to watch in real time, is only less so in the film.
As much as there is to admire in Ali, his flaws were also significant. At a young age, during a feud between black Muslim rulers, he ruthlessly avoided his friend Malcolm X. His motorized efforts to spark interest in his struggles by mocking his opponents, especially Frazier, were often cruel and even played on racist stereotypes. Ali taunted Frazier relentlessly, insulting his intelligence and abilities and, before the third fight, describing him as a mute gorilla.
Although family members interviewed for the film still love Ali, he was a serial womanizer who neglected his children. In a recent conversation, Burns was careful to distinguish between Ali’s marital indiscretions and the predatory behavior of the many men unmasked during the Me era, Too. “Ali has been unfaithful,” he said. ” That’s what he did. He didn’t do anything with anyone where they didn’t want this thing to happen. Maybe that’s a fair distinction, but Ali has consistently used his power and fame to get away with hurtful infidelities.
In the era of gloved boxing, which began in 1882, Ali was the last heavyweight champion to be universally recognized by the title. Think about it: how many people can even name the champion today?
David McMahon and Sarah Burns, who co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed the film with Ken Burns, each thought about this change. McMahon speculated in an interview that Ali “made boxing interesting for longer than it could have been without him.” Sarah Burns has suggested that boxing has lost its mass appeal because public views on manhood have evolved. As defined by Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and other mid-century writers, real men sought their identities in a perilous physical confrontation. Macho culture still thrives, but men’s roles often include partnering in parenthood, sharing household chores, and supporting working wives. “Our expectations regarding masculinity have changed,” said Sarah Burns.
As for Project Ali, she borrowed her father’s favorite New Hampshire analogy to describe how its creators turned the raw material for a seven-year research into Ali’s life into a full cinematic biography. It’s like making maple syrup, Burns likes to say, by boiling 40 gallons of sap for every gallon of syrup. “Ali is kind of an open book,” added McMahon. “It’s not difficult to approach him because he is genuine.”
Ali continued to transcend his sport long after his career ended. In 1996, his torchlighting at the Atlanta Olympics seemed to project a brighter future for race relations. Despite the ups and downs of the past quarter century, the film’s portrayal of this moment rekindles its promise. Ali’s story, illuminated from start to finish, celebrates how an imperfect but self-confident young man became a unifying presence in what remains a divided land.
Mike Pride, retired Concord (NH) Monitor editor and retired Pulitzer Prize administrator, graduated from USF and began his career as a journalist on the West Coast of Florida. He writes history books and lives with his wife Monique in Bow, NH