Who hasn’t taken the measure of Muhammad Ali? Literary heavyweights such as Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, David Remnick, and Joyce Carol Oates have all tried to capture him in prose. A few years back, Jonathan Eig produced an impeccably detailed and comprehensive biography. And then there are the documentaries and films, spotlighting the Rumble in the Jungle and other defining moments in all their archival glory. But there have been few films of any lasting significance that have embraced the full sweep of Ali’s life.
Muhammad Ali, a four-part PBS series that Ken Burns co-directed with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon, fills that void. Ali might seem like an obvious subject for Burns, he of the monumental deep dives into Americana.
No provocative thesis undergirds the seven-plus-hour series; there isn’t much in the way of breaking news, apart from a cache of newly uncovered footage and photographs, including scenes from Ali’s family life. The format is what you might expect: talking heads, a jazz and hip-hop soundtrack (including Beyoncé’s “Freedom”), the portentous voice-of-God narration. It is neither hagiography nor a takedown.
Even so, there’s surprising power to be found here. After Ali defeats Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world, he draws a daring line in the sand of 1964 America, telling reporters about his conversion to Islam, his opposition to racial integration, and his intent to carry himself as a different kind of Black champion: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want to be and think what I want to think.”
There’s power in watching him face off against Cleveland Williams in 1966, gliding around the ring like he has discovered some new dimension to the pugilistic art, dodging punches and throwing combinations as he dances backward on the canvas. “I think his masterpiece is with Cleveland Williams,” says Michael Bentt, a former boxer who likens the performance to something by Picasso, Baryshnikov, or Miles Davis. “That kind of artistry will never be seen again.”
There’s power in watching Ali exact his revenge against Ernie Terrell, who had refused to call him by his Muslim name prior to their fight, punishing Terrell in the ring as he repeatedly taunts him: “What’s my name?” As the essayist Gerald Early says, “It was a sign that a new kind of Black athlete had appeared, a whole new kind of Black consciousness had appeared—it was a whole new kind of Black male dispensation that had come about as a result of that fight. That fight to me and I think for many other young Black people such as myself at the time was a turning point.”
And there’s power in remembering that Ali sacrificed the prime years of his career and untold millions in earnings when he refused to be inducted into the army after he was drafted during the Vietnam War, saying, “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.” He earned a five-year jail sentence that was overturned by the Supreme Court—but only after a clerk for John Marshall Harlan II persuaded the justice that Ali’s opposition to fighting was based on his religious beliefs, at least in part, and the court discovered a technicality that enabled a ruling in Ali’s favor without establishing new precedent. When the boxer returned to the ring a lesser, slower man after a three-and-a-half-year absence, he drew on his other talents—his relentless psychological manipulation of opponents and his ability to endure untold punishment in the ring—to maintain his supremacy, culminating with his famous rope-a-dope victory over George Foreman in Zaire.
The scenes from the mountaintop give way to ones from a horror flick: Ali, his graying hair dyed black, absorbing one final beating at the hands of Trevor Berbick in 1981. By then Ali had started to exhibit signs of Parkinson’s, and he mounted little defense against Berbick’s onslaught. Some form of justice deserves to be exacted against his handlers, Don King included, who arranged the fight and pocketed their cut.
If one grand idea or arc animates the series, it’s how Ali, who once inspired fear and hatred in large swaths of America, who was regarded as an impertinent loudmouth, a draft-dodging Muslim who couldn’t get a fight sanctioned in his home country, became a beloved icon who ceremonially lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The filmmakers don’t succumb to mythology, delving into Ali’s inherent contradictions, his moral failings, his moments of abject cruelty. He borrowed from the lexicon of white supremacists in attacking Joe Frazier before their three fights, calling him an Uncle Tom and a gorilla. He praised George Wallace for his segregationist beliefs and would later endorse Ronald Reagan. He was a serial philanderer who fathered children with at least two women out of wedlock and married his third wife, Veronica Porche, in Zaire, while still married to his second, Belinda Boyd. (According to Boyd, during a fight over her supposed infidelity, Ali struck her and gave her a black eye, as Eig reported in his 2017 biography—a story that the series fails to mention.)
But perhaps nothing rivaled Ali’s treatment of Malcolm X, who had become an advisor, a kind of big brother to Ali early in the boxer’s career. Drawn to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, Ali had met Malcolm X, the group’s national spokesman, before a rally in Detroit in 1962. But when a rift developed between the two religious leaders, and Malcolm X began to start his own movement, Ali found himself in a quandary, with both men seeking his allegiance. Members of the Nation of Islam traditionally replaced their last names, considered to be their slave names, with an X. But Elijah Muhammad bestowed on the fighter, born Cassius Clay, the rare honor of a full Muslim name: Muhammad meaning worthy of praise, Ali meaning lofty. When Ali sided with the Nation of Islam, and the organization intensified its calls for vengeance against Malcolm X, the boxer did nothing to ease the rhetoric. In light of Malcolm X’s eventual assassination, Ali’s words are chilling: “Malcolm X and anybody else who attacks, talks about attacking Elijah Muhammad, will die. No man can oppose the message of almighty God verbally or physically and get away with it.”
The series doesn’t grapple with the implications or reasons behind Ali’s decision. Nor does it fully contend with his transformation from a revolutionary into a global brand in retirement. In his biography, Eig writes how sponsorship deals with the likes of IBM, Porsche, and Louis Vuitton helped obscure the boxer’s anti-establishment roots: “The new Ali stood for everything—for peace, love, equality, justice, and high-end leather goods—and in standing for everything risked standing for nothing.”
In the gaps between perception and reality, between Ali as public performer and the man behind the many masks, the series leaves much unsaid. Still, for a new generation, it’s a worthy introduction; for an older one, a charged trip into the vortex of memory. In a charmed ending, a masterstroke by the filmmakers, Wole Soyinka reads aloud from his 1985 poem “Muhammad Ali at the Ring-Side.”
The enchantment is over but, the spell remains.
Five years after Ali’s death, in our age of upheaval and social reckoning, the sentiment rings as true as ever.
For air dates and information about how to stream the episodes, go to: https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/muhammad-ali/.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.