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The Hauser Report: Ken Burns Explores Muhammad Ali

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  • The Hauser Report: Ken Burns Explores Muhammad Ali

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    By Thomas Hauser

    "I wanted to write about Muhammad Ali," Wilfrid Sheed told me years ago when we were discussing the text that Sheed had written for an elaborate coffee-table book. "He’s one of those madonnas you want to paint at least once in your life."

    Ali is also a subject that filmmakers want to make documentaries about. More documentaries have been fashioned about Ali than any other athlete ever.

    There was a time when Ali was the most famous, most recognizable, most loved person on the planet. He was an important social and political figure in addition to being a great fighter. One day after Cassius Clay (as he was then known) beat Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight crown, he met with reporters and told them, "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."

    At a time when the heavyweight championship of the world was the most coveted title in sports, that lit a spark that grew into a raging fire. Commenting on the impact of Ali's refusal to accept induction into the United States Army at the height of the war in Vietnam, Islamic scholar Sherman Jackson observed, "You can't teach that kind of thing in lectures and books. That kind of thing has to be modeled."

    Now Ken Burns - one of America's most honored filmmakers - has thrown his hat into the ring. Burns rose to prominence in 1990 when PBS aired his critically-acclaimed eleven-hour documentary on the Civil War. Since then, he has tackled subjects ranging from baseball, Mark Twain, and jazz to World War II, the war in Vietnam, and the Brooklyn Bridge. In 2005, he explored the life and times of Jack Johnson in a 3-1/2-hour documentary entitled Unforgivable Blackness. Now Burns has returned to the sweet science with Muhammad Ali - an eight-hour opus co-directed and written with Sarah Burns (his daughter), and David McMahon (her husband).

    Muhammad Ali unfolds chronologically and is divided into four parts designated as "rounds" - a questionable designation since Ali was hardly a four-round fighter.

    Round One: The Greatest (1942-1964) details Cassius Clay's upbringing in Louisville through his first fight against Sonny Liston with considerable exposition of the Nation of Islam and the allure that it had for Clay.

    Round Two: What's My Name (1964-1970) covers Ali at his peak as a fighter[Liston II through Ali-Folley with Ali-Quarry I tacked on]. Also, Ali and the draft.

    Round Three: The Rivalry (1970-1974) takes viewers from Ali-Bonavena, through Ali-Frazier I and II up to an introduction of Don King and the stirrings of Ali-Foreman.

    Round Four: The Spell Remains (1974-2016) begins with "The Rumble in the Jungle" and lays out the remaining forty-two years of Ali's life.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I was one of several people asked by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2018 to review Burns's proposal for the documentary and answer a series of questions keyed to whether or not CPB should fund it. Given the excellence of Burns's work, I began my response with the thought, "It feels presumptuous to be critiquing a proposal by Ken Burns," and added, "I have no doubt that Ken Burns will do a masterful job in the areas that he covers. His track record speaks for itself. Muhammad Ali is important. And Mr. Burns's proposal, coupled with his reputation for excellence as a filmmaker, promise a comprehensive entertaining look at his subject."

    The finished documentary bears out that promise. It's thorough and nicely put together. Burns lays out both the positive aspects and also the ugly underside of the Nation of Islam without sugarcoating the principles that Ali espoused at a time in his life when he adhered to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. The glorious and ultimately tragic arc of Ali's ring career is well told. The cruelties that he visited on Joe Frazier outside the ring and Ali's profligate womanizing are honestly addressed. The archival footage and still photos are excellent.

    Keith David's narration is smooth. Some of the talking heads are exceptionally good.

    Former WBO heavyweight beltholder Michael Bentt is particularly insightful in describing Ali's ring technique.

    Professor and media commentator Todd Boyd is a welcome voice. Speaking about Ali's taunting of Joe Frazier, Boyd declares, "Ali is making the sort of jokes that racist white people would make. I feel like, in that instance, he used his powers for evil as opposed to using them for good."

    Khalilah Ali (Muhammad's second wife) and two of his daughters, Rasheda and Hana, provide valuable personal insights. Veronica Porche (Muhammad's third wife) is a particularly welcome inclusion.

    Journalist Salim Muwakkil makes a solid contribution. And Burns gives ample time to three wise men who covered Ali for much of his journey - journalists Robert Lipsyte, Jerry Izenberg, and Dave Kindred.

    Kindred is the most lyrical of the three. Recalling Ali-Frazier III, he states, "They turned each other into monsters. That's boxing at its cruelest. That's what the game is. And they were at their best cruelest that night." Later, commenting on Ali's horribly debilitated physical condition, Kindred observes, "The game that we asked him to play to entertain us has left him looking like this."

    On the minus side, the documentary is too long. Its eight hours drag in places. Some of the material (e.g., the extensive film footage from Ali's amateur career and some of his professional fights) could have been shortened with no loss in quality.

    More significantly, Burns offers no new interpretations of Ali.

    In responding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting questionnaire, I advanced the thought, "There has been an endless stream of Ali documentaries over the past half century. More are currently in production. For maximum impact and to make a maximum contribution to history, it's not enough for Mr. Burns to do what has been done before better than it has been previously done. He has to break new ground."

    How could he break new ground?

    "I hope," my response continued, "that Mr. Burns devotes some time to the final twenty years of Ali’s life in a more than superficial way. These decades cry out for interpretation. What did Ali mean to the world over these years? Was his legacy corrupted by the calculated filing away of rough edges from his persona and the 'sanitization' of his image by CKX, ABG [two companies that owned commercial rights to Ali's name, likeness, and image], and others for economic gain? Is there still an Ali message that resonates? In memory, can Ali be a force for positive change? Is there a way to harness the extraordinary outpouring of love that was seen around the world when Ali died?"

    "Round Four" of the documentary could have addressed these issues. But it didn't. The last thirty-five years of Ali's life (everything after the end of his ring career) are compressed into twenty-five minutes. And much of this time is devoted to Ali lighting the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

    The 1996 Olympics were an important marker in the public's embrace of Ali. But they were also the point at which corporate America rediscovered Muhammad and the sanitization of his image for economic gain began. This was evident in everything from subsequent superficial advertising campaigns to the 2001 feature film starring Will Smith. Burns's documentary doesn't sanitize Ali. But it doesn't talk about the sanitization either. And that sanitization was a corrosive force.

    Decades ago, Alex Haley (who fashioned The Autobiography of Malcolm X with its subject) told me, "I think it’s important for future generations to know who Muhammad Ali was. So, if I were to talk to a young boy about Ali today - a young boy who wasn’t alive in the 1960s, who didn’t live through Vietnam, someone for whom Ali is history - I’d talk to that boy about principles and pride. I’d say, ‘If you really want to know about people and history in the times before you were born, you owe it to yourself to go back, not read books so much, but to go to a library where you’ll have access to daily papers and read about this man, every single day for years. That might give you some understanding of who Muhammad Ali was and what he meant to his people.'"

    Every single day. Day after day. For years.

    Muhammad Ali's spirit is inside all of us. At its best, Ken Burns's film reminds us of how charismatic, charming, electrifying, wise, foolish, generous, loving, cruel, kind, complex, simple, and great Ali could be.

    Thomas Hauser's email address is His next book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – will be published in October by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing's highest honor - induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

    Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel