“Muhammad Ali” (PBS Streaming)

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was published in 1947. The first chapter is a famous stand alone story “The Battle Royal”, an allegorical tale of a young black man put on stage to brawl blindfolded with other schoolmates–all for the amusement of rich white men. Later his grandfather gives him this advice: “I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country… Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.

Muhammad Ali rejected that advice.

Ken Burns, his oldest daughter, Sarah, and her husband, David McMahon have created a four part (they call them “Rounds”), eight hour series documenting the life of this extraordinary athlete and incredibly complex man, born Cassius Clay. Forty years of interviews, photographs, and film footage, create a portrait not only of Muhammad Ali but also of four decades of a struggle to assert that Black lives matter and the tensions within that battle. My content warning is that it includes a lot of actual boxing footage and its concomitant blood and gore. I had to leave the room several times, baffled by its appeal to so many. And of course as you might imagine, the brutality is not confined to the ring: the hate, the police savagery, the racist targeting by the government, and heartbreaking footage of the Vietnam War. And Muhammad Ali’s own casual and intentional cruelty in his ascent to the top.

I have to admit that I’m not a huge Ken Burns fan. His style, now an I-Mac “effect”– available to all– drives me nuts. Fortunately this movie is free of that, making it much more watchable. I’m looking forward to the next two “Rounds”.


  1. I watched three rounds and couldn’t bring myself to watch the entire fourth round, at which point Larry Holmes is beating Ali to a bloody pulp. Ali wouldn’t go down, or so I’m told, and that’s the metaphor for his entire life. I thought Burns and team did a great job of presenting Ali in all his contradictions. I came away admiring him and also being revolted by him.


  2. Yes. There is so much footage of the brutal and often senseless beatings that I guess Burns felt he had to drive the metaphor home. I agree with all you say. Bewildering that he aligned himself with creepy Elijah thug. Malcolm X was a hero of mine and it hurt me so much to watch Ali’s rejection of that brilliant man.


  3. Wonderful, point-the- point review, Susan. I’ve been watching it and its visions are staying in my mind. You’re giving them shape.


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