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“Muhammad Ali” review: Ken Burns’ PBS documentary takes four fascinating laps with the life and legacy of the champion

Coming shortly after Netflix’s “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali” and two years after HBO’s “What’s My Name / Muhammad Ali”, the heart of this production lies in the attention to detail, from providing brief biographies of Ali’s main opponents in examining the rise of the Nation of Islam, which the boxer controversially joined after winning the title from Cassius Clay in 1964, when he had just turned 22.

“Muhammad Ali” is also greatly enriched by the enlisted voices of directors Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon (whose previous collaborations include “Jackie Robinson” and “The Central Park Five”), from New Yorker editor David Remnick noting that people forget how “incredibly divisive” Ali was to novelist Walter Mosley, who speaks of his apprehensions at seeing Ali shake up the establishment over the years. As Mosley puts it, he was “a spark, and I was standing in a field of gasoline.”

The documentary skillfully balances Ali’s biography and complicated personal life with his extraordinary gifts as a boxer, combining mind-blowing hand and foot speed for a heavyweight with an ability to take a punch that would ultimately become a handicap. , given the enormous toll that all these blows have taken. on him.

Former boxer Michael Bentt is particularly good at describing Ali’s skills, while sports writer Dave Kindred expresses the guilt many have felt over the past few years after being delighted at Ali’s exploits and helping to creating the market that made him shadow himself due to Parkinson’s disease before his death in 2016.
Ali’s story also covers growing up black in Kentucky – and being greatly influenced by the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, who was only a year older – winning gold at the 1960 Olympics, embracing Islam and declaring its conscientious objector status in Vietnam. war. The latter move not only sparked a backlash, but interrupted his career at its peak, then regained the championship on several occasions, including his memorable fights with Joe Frazier.

Burns and company don’t peddle Ali’s excesses and transgressions, racist slurs he hurled at Frazier and before him at Sonny Liston upon his abandonment of Malcolm X, an action he later admitted regretting.

Yet there is also the Ali who joked with reporters, generously gave money to strangers, and churned out poetry bragging about his talents, claiming to have adopted this tactic after seeing wrestler Gorgeous. George.

Ali could also be brutal in the ring, playing with Floyd Patterson and punching Ernie Terrell – who had insisted on calling him Cassius Clay – by shouting “What’s my name?” to him between punches.

The documentary is filled with such details, like the fact that Ali lost to Ken Norton after not training seriously and spent hours before the fight in bed with two women. Of his serial infidelity, former wife Khalilah Ali said: “I just let him do what he had to do.”

Even at more than seven o’clock, “Muhammad Ali” does not contain much appreciable fat, which is a testament to Ali’s personality and the imprint he has left on sport, politics and culture.

Ali’s biographer Jonathan Eig notes that losing to Frazier in 1971 humanized the fighter, in a way it had never been before. “That’s when Ali gets really popular in America,” he says.

Burns captured that humanity as well as greatness, in a way that rumbles with the breadth of Ali’s legacy and comes out on top impressively.

“Muhammad Ali” will air September 19-22 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.

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