Mohamed Ali: Ken Burns’ documentary knocks us out in 4 rounds [critique]


We thought we knew everything about the champion. Ken Burns returns to one of the greatest monuments of American pop culture. Essential.

The four episodes of the documentary series Mohamed Ali are at see replay on Arte.TV until March 11, and will be available on DVD this Tuesday, February 1.

Muhammad Ali was the greatest boxing champion of all time. But it was much more than that. A star, an American myth. Ali is Elvis, Lennon or Marilyn, but whose impact would have been increased tenfold by the color of his skin. A shaman, a protesting star, a hero at the confluence of all the movements of 60s and 70s. And he was also one of the most filmed characters in the entire history of the 20th century. It is precisely in this that the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (accustomed to docs and XXL subjects) tried to put some order. The stream of archives that retraces Ali’s story shows through films, news, home movies like the combat captures the multiple (and contradictory) personality of this chameleon. Burns first studies the boxer, dissecting his tricks, his attitudes, his CV and his supremacy, leaving ample room for the champion to “speak” (by unrolling long excerpts from his matches which allow us to see his technique and his finesse). But the filmmaker dips the icon above all in the ink of his obsessions: American racism (“Whites fell in love with him when illness prevented him from speaking” explains a witness), faith, sport and what it meant to be American when the country was going through a major identity crisis… This is obviously where the doc becomes fascinating, allowing us to better understand the icon what was The Greatest. We end this series with a desire: to see again Ali by Michael Mann which functioned as the intimate reverse shot of the media image.

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