Muhammad Ali: A Film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

PBS Distribution;
Documentary;
$69.99 DVD, $79.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Narrated by Keith David.

Boxing history meets the civil rights movement in PBS documentarian Ken Burns and his team’s latest sojourn into the historical record, an examination of the life of legendary boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

Presented as four two-hour episodes, Muhammad Ali is an engrossing profile of the man who dubbed himself “The Greatest,” and backed up his claim in the ring. The political aspects of his life amid the racial tensions of the mid-20th century make it easy to see what made Ali an attractive subject for Burns, who often incorporates the history of race relations into the broader context of American History.

The first episode chronicles Ali’s boyhood in Kentucky, when he was known as Cassius Clay. Seeking help after his bike was stolen, young Clay stumbled across a cop giving boxing lessons, sealing his destiny. A sparkling amateur career led to an Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960. Turning pro, Ali won his first heavyweight title in 1964.

The second episode finds fame and notoriety catching up to the champ, whose involvement with the Nation of Islam makes him a controversial figure and prompts him to change his name to Muhammad Ali. As he mows down contenders to his title, his biggest foe becomes the U.S. government, as he is drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. His refusal to accept induction leads to a lengthy legal battle, during which he is stripped of his titles and exiled from the sport for three years.

The third disc details his comeback in the early 1970s. As his case makes its way to the Supreme Court, Ali sparks his famous rivalry with Joe Frazier as he embarks on a quest to reclaim his crown.

The fourth disc covers the final years of Ali’s career, his declining health and being embraced as a cultural and sports icon.

While the documentary celebrates the glory of his success, it also takes an unflinching look at his personal life, including a string of troubled marriages, as well as a brazen attitude that didn’t make too many friends.

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Ken Burns Docuseries ‘Muhammad Ali’ Streaming on PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel Sept. 19

Muhammad Ali, a new four-part documentary directed by Ken Burns, will begin streaming on the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel Sept. 19.

It will be available in 4K Ultra HD.

The subscription rate for the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel is $3.99 per month with an Amazon Prime or Prime Video subscription.

The new series, which was in development for six years, was also written and co-directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon, whose previous collaborations with Burns include The Central Park Five (2012), Jackie Robinson (2016) and East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story (2020).

The film follows the life of one of the most consequential men of the 20th century, a three-time heavyweight boxing champion who captivated billions with his combination of speed, agility and power in the ring, as well as his charm, wit and outspokenness outside of it. At the height of his fame, Ali challenged Americans’ racial prejudices, religious biases and notions about what roles celebrities and athletes play in our society, and inspired people all over the world with his message of pride and self-affirmation.

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Drawing from archival footage and photographs, contemporary music, and the insights and memories of eyewitnesses — including family and friends, journalists, boxers and historians, among many others — the docuseries is a sweeping portrait of an American icon. The series details the story of the athlete who called himself — and was considered by many to be — “the greatest of all time” and competed in some of the most dramatic and widely viewed sporting events in history, including “The Fight of the Century” and “The Thrilla in Manila,” both against his great rival Joe Frazier, as well as “The Rumble in the Jungle,” in which he defeated George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title that was stripped from him seven years earlier.

Muhammad Ali captures Ali’s principled resistance to the Vietnam War, his steadfast commitment to his Muslim faith, and his complex relationships with Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. While largely celebrated today as an icon of American sport and culture, Ali was not always embraced. At times he was reviled by many in America, especially white Americans and members of the media. Ali faced a firestorm of criticism when he said, “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong” — a stance that would result in five years of legal jeopardy and a three-and-a-half-year banishment from boxing.

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Ali’s story is full of contradictions. Despite his ruthlessness in the ring, he was a symbol of peace and pacifism. Though committed to a faith that expected dignified conduct, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wives. A clever showman with unparalleled genius for promotion, he occasionally allowed partners and friends to take advantage of him. Endlessly trumpeting his own greatness, he anonymously donated much of his fortune.

Muhammad Ali includes interviews with Ali’s daughters Hana Ali and Rasheda Ali, his second wife Khalilah Ali, his third wife Veronica Porche, and his brother and confidant Rahaman Ali. Others appearing in the film include activist and former basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, sportswriter Howard Bryant, historian Gerald Early, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, friend and business manager Gene Kilroy, boxing promoter Don King, novelist Walter Mosley, long-time friend Abdul Rahman, and New Yorker editor David Remnick, among others.

Other titles coming to the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel in September include American Experience: Citizen Hearst, American Experience: Jimmy Carter, Season 1, American Experience: Reagan, Season 1, American Experience: Supreme Justice: Sandra Day O’Connor, American Masters: Raul Julia: The World’s a Stage, American Masters: Twyla Moves, Discovering Your Warrior Spirit with D.J. Vanas, Frontline: America After 9/11, Frontline: Boeing’s Fatal Flaw, Generation 9/11, Independent Lens: Harvest Season, Lives Well Lived, Nova: Bat Superpowers and Nova: The Cannabis Question.

Doc ‘Blood Brothers’ on Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali Friendship Debuting on Netflix Sept. 9

The documentary Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali, about legendary icons Malcom X and Muhammad Ali and featuring never before seen archival footage, will debut on Netflix Sept. 9.

The documentary feature is inspired by the book Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X written by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith.

Directed by Marcus A. Clarke and produced by Kenya Barris for Khalabo Ink Society and Jason Perez, Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali tells the story behind the friendship of two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century: Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Ali was the charismatic and outspoken Olympic champion who charmed the nation, and Malcolm X the ex-con-turned revolutionary who railed against white oppression.

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“Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are two of the most iconic and revered African-Americans of the twentieth century, and yet the depths of their friendship and the influence they had on each other is largely unknown,” Clarke said in a statement. “Blood Brothers provides a deeper understanding into what made these two men tick, the intense role faith played in their bond and ultimately how their budding friendship came to an abrupt end.”

Clarke directed three of six installments of Netflix’s documentary series “Unsolved Mysteries Vol. 1,” as well as three episodes of the Netflix docuseries “Rapture.”

Barris and Khalabo Ink Society are also producing an upcoming documentary on civil rights attorney Ben Crump for Netflix.

When We Were Kings

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Documentary;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG’ for images of violence, brief nudity and some language.
Featuring Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton.

“No. No way. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to pay that much money to watch Ali get killed in the ring.”

That was me to my best friend in 1974 as the now famed, Zaire-set Rumble in the Jungle approached, the subsequent Rope-a-Dope bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman — long before the latter became the Anthony Bourdain of college dorms. This was the same friend with whom I’d seen the closed-circuit broadcast of Ali-Frazier II in Washington, D.C.’s long extinct RKO Keith’s — right round the corner-and-change from the White House and we were the only white guys in the raucously wild-ass balcony (an experience). Later, we’d see Ali in person win a close and controversial decision against Jimmy Young up in Landover, MD. But as for the Rumble, I wouldn’t go back to the Keith’s or anywhere the fight was transmitted, thus missing the century-caliber upset of which Oscar-winning documentaries are made. Which is what happened with 1996’s When We Were Kings, one of my favorite movies of any kind ever made.

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Ali’s imminent death or at least serious maiming was the common wisdom at the time, stated by no less than Norman Mailer (author of The Fight, a book I love) and George Plimpton, all the way down to just about any person on the street, which by that time was where Richard Nixon was not quite three months after his resignation. Everyone knew that Ali was too old and too sapped (particularly by what the U.S. government had done to him), while Foreman was a sullen destroyer still eons away from a subsequent and complete alteration of his personal image, one arguably more jolting than Frank Sinatra’s and Dick Powell’s put together. Whereas Ali eventually spent most of his time actively charming the locals and then some, Foreman showed up in Zaire with a German shepherd, which was not the pet of choice for all the Africans who remembered or knew about British colonialism, which was just about everybody.

This all became the nucleus of the film but not by design. The original intention was to film a concert thrown in as an extra added PR attraction by Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko, a typically bloody-handed despot who also embezzled billions, which makes you wonder if he regarded the bout’s promoter Don King as a soul brother. But during the lead-up, Foreman walked into a training camp elbow — delaying the fight for six weeks perilously close to the rainy season. The concert dates and performers were bound by contracts, and these were heavy hitters: James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, Celia Cruz and more. The three-nighter was filmed, albeit with no one in the audience for the first two nights, thanks to the postponed main event. And in the interim, filmmaker Leon Gast began to think that there might be a more novel documentary out there, dealing with Ali’s spiritual renewal with the African people who adored him. Plus, of course, the fight itself.

Cut to a modest wait of maybe two decades when Gast finally got the money (thank you, producer David Sonenberg) to begin assembling what he had from a few skyscrapers’ worth of shot material. The filmmaker wisely elected not to distract from what truly mattered by now, making the concert a presence but definitely a sideline affair. Eventually, much more of the music footage formed the basis for 2008’s theatrically released Soul Power, which in typically classy Criterion fashion is included on this release as well (it actually runs a teensy bit longer than Kings). Not exactly a concert film per se, it deals as much with its own backstage material and is a little like Murray Lerner’s Festival in that regard. The No. 1 reality it conveys is the intense heat endured by the performers (at least the fighters were mostly stripped down). The Spinners are dripping with sweat by the time they hit their first note, and, like most artists showcased, are wearing performing duds. Though the Spinners drummer, no fool, seems to be saying the hell with that and is in a t-shirt.

Back to the fight. The final capper to transform a superb documentary into an all-timer came when friend-of-the-production Taylor Hackford took a look at assembled footage and decided that a few perspective-oriented voices might round things out: Mailer, Plimpton, Ali biographer Thomas Hauser, Spike Lee. Watching Mailer talk about anything — and do we ever need him and all his first-person pseudonyms in the present political climate — puts most movies in the shade just by itself. Also great to see is Lee’s appalled reaction to the fact most young people know almost nothing when it comes to even recent history — while Plimpton gets to end the picture on a perfect anecdotal note following a couple spectacular climactic peaks: the fight itself and then one of the best music-backed photo montages I’ve ever seen to the celebratory title tune.

It’s also sweet to see Mailer given the opportunity to laud the beloved individual that Foreman eventually became, and unlike Frazier (who became understandably embittered at the adulation Ali accumulated) looked after the now handicapped champ on and offstage when Kings took the Oscar that was only its due (it had previously cleaned up in critics’ awards as well). When deciding whether or not to give the movie a “go” when an assemblage was put together, Foreman ended up seeing it 11 times, which we have to take as an affirmative. He said every viewing convinced him that he was going to win, but Ali, of course, had successfully tired out Foreman by enduring several rounds’ worth of the latter’s sideline punches while leaning against the ropes, outlasting a totally intimidating force until he could score a knockout in the eighth.

After damage inflicted here and also by Frazier and certainly by 22 subsequent bouts, Ali never lost his intelligence, but his motor skills were shot for the rest of his life. As a result, what happened to him accomplished what my seeing Benny “Kid” Paret beaten to a delayed death from a March 24, 1962, beating on ABC’s “Fight of the Week” did not: Make me lose my taste for boxing despite fervent fandom that went back at least to the three Patterson-Johansson contests and extended through all the Saturday ABC-TV broadcasts (was there a Basilio-Fullmer LXVIII?; it seemed like it).

Years after the Rumble, on the way back to my hotel after the New York press screening of Terrence Malick’s already mesmerizing film of James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, I saw Ali standing out in front of his hotel on the corner of 54th Street and Avenue of the Americas posing tolerantly (maybe even contentedly) next to one more yahoo whose buddy had an Instamatic. I’d never been more tempted to go the same yahoo route myself (of course, it would have helped if I were carrying a camera in those pre-cellphone days) but finally rejected the thought. This, however, didn’t keep me from stopping in my tracks and staring for as long as was socially acceptable; I felt I was in the presence of a king. That’s where this documentary puts you, hence its title, as Mailer, B.B. King and The Godfather of Soul rounds out a Murderer’s Row of royalty.

Mike’s Picks: ‘When We Were Kings’ and ‘The Return of Martin Guerre’