Esteemed, prolific, award-winning, American Filmmaker Kenneth Burns and his co-directors, Sarah Burns and David McMahon using archival footage and still-life photographs have created a documentary on the many complicated facets of the iconic athlete and activist, MUHAMMAD ALI. This is a four-part series, premiering on Sunday, September 19 through Wednesday, September 22 on all Public Broadcasting Stations. WTTW on Wednesday evening, September 15 at 6:00 p.m. zoomed a preview of this epic four-part series with a discussion chat moderated by Tim Russell, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. I was very impressed by the format that followed Cassius Clay on his Spiritual Journey to becoming Muhammad Ali. Burns and his team connect Ali’s evolution from a divisive pugilist to a revered hero of the people.
There are many discoveries to be made in this presentation of Ali’s life. The first scene shown in the preview was not the bombastic Ali. We are witnesses to a genteel man engaged with his toddler daughter in some humorous poignant banter during breakfast time. He is asking to share her cereal. She is patently refusing his request. He distracts her to look out the window, while he sneaks a spoonful of her cereal. His unadulterated look of joy at this precious playful moment in fatherhood allows us a glimpse of a lover, not just a three-time heavyweight boxing champion. His life and legacy are explored as a backdrop to the changes in culture in America.
Burns does not shy away from the Good, Bad, and Ugly life of Ali. Burns took seven years to document Ali’s life experiences and evolution through politics, religion, and boxing mirroring what was currently happening in America. We learn that For all his braggadocio calling himself “The Greatest” before he actually achieved it in the boxing ring he was a very loving generous man. After he was stripped of his boxing championship title Ali spent almost a decade in Chicago and joined the Nation of Islam under its leader, Elijah Muhammad. His Muslim conversion was considered suspect. He refused to fight in the Vietnam War and claimed conscientious objector status. This was not upheld in the courts.
His biggest fight was lost not in a boxing ring, but to Mayor Daley when Ali criticized our involvement in the Vietnam War. In 1966 Ali was scheduled to fight Ernie Terell, a Chicago Boxer. Mayor Daley and Governor Otto Kerner went to the Illinois Boxing Commission and rescinded his Illinois boxing license so that the fight could not take place in Chicago. He also lost his conscientious objection status in a Supreme Court ruling. He served five years in prison. In 1971 the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Ironically Mayor Daley welcomed back Ali as a champion in 1974 after he defeated George Foreman for the championship. He was awarded Chicago’s Medal of Merit, reception at City Hall, and Mayor Daley’s admiration.
Ali reflected the times and changes in society. He stood up for his belief no matter the cost. Despite suffering Parkinson’s from his many blows to his head he was honored In 1996 as an Olympic torchbearer opening the Summer Games in Atlanta Georgia. This documentary is very relevant to our current times honoring a true but flawed American icon.