2021, TV

Muhammad Ali (2021)

Burns and Co’s second documentary series focused entirely on one person is even longer than and more in-depth than Hemingway. But, fortunately, Ali’s life is, in many ways, a grander subject. At least for the first half, the series is in many ways an alternate history of the post war United States. And even when it narrows in on Ali and the end of his career and life, it is still a fascinating and compelling portrait of one of the most interesting Americans of the 20th century.

I watched When We Were Kings something like 20 years ago but that is most of what I know about Muhammad Ali. This series gives a pretty in-depth view of his life, as you might imagine would happen in 7 and a half hours. Like so many famous men, Ali was an extremely flawed human being. But much more so than Hemingway it feels like Muhammad Ali doesn’t excuse this as much as you might expect a Ken Burns film to. In Hemingway it feels like most of the assembled interviewees are like “But he’s such a great writer, so, you know, I don’t really care that he was awful.” With this, there is a little more “Ali was a jackass.” (Though there is still plenty of hagiography.)

The first two episodes are broad and feel almost like an alternative history of the post war US. Yes, it focuses on Ali, but once the Nation of Islam gets involved, it’s quite a broad history of life in the US at this time. The second episode in particular is quite good in this regard. The third and especially the fourth episodes are focused much more on Ali himself but that’s still a compelling story, even if Ali can put you off with his braggadocio and his jackassery.

I think this ranks among Burns’ best work. It’s a thorough, pretty fair portrait of one of the most interesting Americans of the 20th century (not to mention, greatest athletes) and it’s also a different version of US history than we normally get from Burns and PBS.


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