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Ken Burns' Muhammad Ali is an immensely watchable documentary, but it also avoids being provocative

  • "Burns is a master cataloger of consensus, especially across a broad sweep of history, and so it would make sense that his film would follow those conventions," says Jay Caspian Kang. "So let’s get the plaudits out of the way: Muhammad Ali is the most thorough Ali documentary to date and certainly worth the nearly eight-hour running time. The best Ali film will always be When We Were Kings, which glows with a wealth of archival footage and provides an unusually intimate look at Ali in the weeks before the Rumble in the Jungle with Foreman. (One rule of documentary filmmaking: If you have a lot of archival film from the 1970s, it’s almost impossible to make a bad movie, because that footage is going to be beautiful and evocative in its colors and its resolution.) But that’s a high bar to clear. When We Were Kings might be the best documentary ever made. Burns, as he did with Baseball, Jazz and Country Music, has much broader ambitions. I admire his work, especially The Vietnam War, which I see as his masterpiece, but at his core, he approaches filmmaking in the same way that the Encyclopedia Britannica once approached the world of knowledge: The goal isn’t necessarily to make the most provocative or artistic film but rather to make a heavy object that collects and then dutifully reports the consensus at the time. That said, this is not a dull film. Burns, despite the length of his films, has a sense of what matters and what doesn’t, which makes Muhammad Ali immensely watchable. But Burns also doesn’t upend any norms of Aliology: The boxer is still the saint. The film does spend quite a bit of time discussing some unflattering things, like his constant womanizing. But most of these detours from the hagiographic script feel rather perfunctory — almost as if Burns, like most viewers, doesn’t care all that much about what Ali did in the bedroom." Kang adds: "Burns also seems ambivalent about what Ali actually said, outside of those sound bites everyone knows, most of which address his greatness inside the ring. For a film that’s almost eight hours long, it doesn’t have much about Ali’s thoughts on American politics, aside from a clip in which he says he agrees with the segregationist George Wallace and the famed quote about the Vietcong. That type of precise editing runs through most Aliology: We know Ali stood against racism, but do we really know much beyond that?"

    TOPICS: Muhammad Ali, PBS, Ken Burns, Documentaries