Muhammad Ali

Ken Burns’ new ‘Muhammad Ali’ docu-series is an immersive look at the Greatest of All Time

“He called himself the greatest, and then proved it to the entire world.”

These introductory remarks by Muhammad Ali narrator Keith David could well be a tagline for the new four-part documentary series directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon. Again and again, the film returns to the theme of prophecy. Ali’s brash, detailed and often eerily accurate predictions of his victories were as integral to his fame as the uncanny speed and movement – “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” – that made him unstoppable in the ring during his prime.

More than that, Ali’s enormous confidence, swagger and genius for comical and poetic self-promotion, coupled with his refusal to play by the establishment’s rules, made him a hero to millions of Black Americans during the Civil Rights era. And the more Ali’s fame grew, the more uncompromising he became.

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali leaving the Odeon Cinema after weighing in for his title defence against Henry Cooper at Arsenal Football Club. London, May 21, 1966.

Hours after he won his first heavyweight championship in 1965, he declared himself a member of the Nation of Islam, the controversial Black separatist religious organisation. Eventually Ali would refuse the US military draft, derailing his boxing career and facing prison time for his staunch anti-imperialist views – ensuring that he would be reviled in the mainstream at home and a hero to millions of oppressed people around the world.

There is no shortage of documentary coverage of Ali, who was at one point possibly the most famous person on earth. But the Burns’ and McMahon’s new contribution to his legacy is welcome for its patient, granular look at the great one’s entire career, its balance and sensitivity with Ali’s complexities and contradictions, and its detailed examination of social and political factors that paint a vivid picture of his era. It includes commentary from many friends and colleagues of Ali’s, including figures like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Ali’s daughters, Hana and Rasheda.

The filmmaking style is a straightforward mix of archival footage and interviews. But Burns and his co-directors (daughter Sarah and son-in-law David) prove their mastery of this mode, and far from feeling cut and dried, Muhammad Ali is a pleasure to watch, powerfully dramatic, suspenseful and illuminating.

Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay

Cassius Clay holds up five fingers in a prediction of how many rounds it will take him to knock out Henry Cooper. London, May 27, 1963.
Source: Getty Images

The first episode of the series (which goes by the title ‘Round One: The Greatest’) focuses on the years before Ali became champion in 1965, when he was still known as Cassius Clay. The film begins by reminding us that the Ali who was universally lionised upon his death in 2016 was hardly widely embraced in his prime, even before his conversion to Islam.

As a young, undefeated upstart with his eye on a championship, Cassius Clay irritated many fans and journalists with his boastfulness, trash talking and flouting of sporting convention. He also horrified the white mainstream with his friendship with Malcolm X. But Clay fed on any attention, however negative. “I like to be booed!” he claims in one clip here. There is wonderful footage of Clay in a 1965 bout at Wembley Stadium in London, entering the ring wearing a royal crown on his head to taunt the Brits. He was booed relentlessly; he also won the fight, of course.

Clay was also known for his unusually gender-bending language to describe himself, especially for a cishet man of his era. “I’m as pretty as a girl!” he says over and over in clips of press conferences and interviews.

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali showing his fist in New York. December 15, 1970.
Source: Santi Visali/Archive Photos via Getty Images

Clay’s bombast may have grated some, but for Black Americans it was revolutionary. To see a young Black man who had been raised in the brutally segregated South carry himself that way – to call himself pretty, to say “I am my own master” – was joyous and liberating, given all the system did to trample Black self-esteem. A contemporary article in Ebony magazine described him as “a blast furnace of race pride.”

Burns includes considerable history and detail about the Nation of Islam, founder Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X. These deviations from the main narrative add context and richness to the film. And the directors’ comprehensive approach to Ali’s fighting career also includes generous screen time devoted to his opponents. The first episode particularly focuses on the tragic life of Sonny Liston, whom Ali defeated for his first heavyweight championship amid a media circus.

Following episodes track the evolution of his life and career: ‘Round Two: What’s My Name’, covering 1964–75, as Clay joins Islam and becomes Muhammad Ali, and is convicted of draft evasion after refusing to join the army; ‘Round Three: The Rivalry’, covering 1970–74, which includes the ‘fight of the century’ against Joe Frazier; and ‘Round Four: The Spell Remains’ (1974–2016), charting his evolution into a symbol of hope.  

Muhammad Ali

Angelo Dundee wrapping boxing tape around Muhammad Ali’s hands. White City, London. May 18, 1966.
Source: Monte Fresco/Mirropix via Getty Images

Even with all the discussion of history, politics and racial justice, Muhammad Ali doesn’t stint on the boxing at all. With Baseball and Jackie Robinson under his belt, Ken Burns knows his way around sport, and his passion for the ‘Sweet Science’ shines through in all the coverage of Ali’s training and the plentiful footage of his bouts. Avoiding the quick-cut highlight style of many documentaries, the filmmakers often let the archival footage linger for longer than you expect, creating an immersive experience for the viewer. It feels like we are plunged into the world of boxing in the 1960s.

It’s that combination of serious treatment of its superstar subject along with the thrilling immersion that makes Muhammad Ali worthwhile. 

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