I’ve watched every documentary that has popped up on cable about Muhammad Ali over the years and enjoyed them all. None annoyed me, or annoyed me as much as Ken Burns’s documentary Muhammad Ali (written and co-directed by Sarah Burns, Burns’s oldest daughter, and her husband, David McMahon). Running nearly eight hours over four episodes, the documentary includes extensive footage of Ali that makes it worth viewing. Despite its length, however, I think it is both superficial and misleading in critical respects.
The trouble with a Ken Burns documentary is that Burns is the cinematic equivalent of an unreliable narrator in a novel. (The actor Keith David reads the documentary’s narrative.) Burns’s even longer documentary on the Vietnam war, for example, regurgitated old antiwar talking points that have been discredited for decades.
Burns’s unreliability is manifest in his choice of talking heads. This problem permeated the Vietnam documentary. Here the problem is thrust in our face when Bernardine Dohrn appears out of nowhere for a comment in Round Two (the second episode). Who is Bernardine Dohrn and what is she doing here? The documentary leaves those questions unanswered. That much I can tell you. Writer Walter Mosley makes several appearances. If I never hear from Mosley again it will be too soon, and he isn’t the only such talking head to whom the thought can fairly be applied.
I was interested in the treatment of Ali’s proclamation of faith in “the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam. The documentary’s treatment of Ali’s relationship to them is, shall we say, tactful and problematic. Early in Round Four, for example, we are advised that Ali “continued to venerate Elijah Muhammad” in 1974.
One talking head whom we don’t hear from enough is Louisville sportswriter Dave Kindred, who knew Ali for years. Kindred is the author of several books including one on Ali and Howard Cosell, Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship (2006). In his book Kindred quotes Ali whispering to him about the Nation of Islam in an interview before Elijah Muhammad’s death in early 1975: “I would have gotten out of this [i.e., the Nation of Islam] a long time ago, but you saw what they did to Malcolm X. I ain’t gonna end up like Malcolm X….I can’t leave the Muslims. They’d shoot me, too.”
Kindred’s contribution to the literature puts in relief the comment by another Burns talking head, New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte. Lipsyte appears on camera in Round One after Ali’s first defeat of Sonny Liston to commend Ali’s announcement that he had joined the Nation of Islam as his thrilling declaration of independence. Not exactly.
The documentary proselytizes for Ali’s Islam. It does so, however, without ever exploring or explaining his transition (assuming there was one) from the Nation of Islam to Islam.
The New York Times highlights the Burns documentary’s discoveries in “‘Muhammad Ali’ Explores the Many Layers of ‘the Greatest.’” I also enjoyed the local angle provided by the Lexington Herald-Leader in “Muhammad Ali, the most famous Kentuckian, gets the Ken Burns treatment.”
The Burns documentary sent me back to City Journal managing editor Paul Beston’s fantastic history of heavyweight champions, The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring. In two chapters packed into 60 pages, Paul covers much of the same ground as the Burns documentary, frequently in greater detail and always with genuine insight. My quote from Kindred above is from the book. Like Burns, Paul combines sports history and social history in his own way. By contrast with Burns, however, Beston is a reliable narrator.