The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), or as we refer to it in our house, “IntelliVision,” regularly broadcasts “must-see-TV.” When contrasted to the ignorance, violence, and incessant robbing of innocence that goes on on major television and cable hubs, PBS is a smart option.
So it did not surprise me or catch me off guard when PBS announced their latest coup. “Muhammad Ali,” a film by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon, premiers this month, and it’s worth watching.
This four-part series will be available on-screen, and you can purchase the DVD as well. The titles alone are titillating. “Ali the Man, Ali on The World Stage, Ali Race and Religion, Ali Activism and the Modern Athlete” speak for them- selves. Each episode sounds like a compelling adventure into America’s most prominent sports icon.
Even the official description begs Ali fans and foes to tune in and learn.
“Muhammad Ali brings to life one of the best-known and most indelible figures of the 20th century, a three-time heavyweight boxing champion who captivated millions of fans throughout the world with his mesmerizing combination of speed, grace, and power in the ring, and charm and playful boasting outside of it. Ali insisted on being himself unconditionally and became a global icon and inspiration to people everywhere.”
Since this project produced its first marketing ads and an official trailer, Muhammad Ali enthusiasts like me have been punch drunk with anticipation. America is facing a time of historical reckonings and adjustments right now, but Ali can stand the test.
The boxer, born Cassius Clay, faced racism, oppression, and cultural bias that this nation wants you to forget. The State of Texas can forbid educators to present the tenets of “Critical Race Theory,” but the challenges Ali overcame prove that CRT is real. The essence of CRT rightly promotes that the law and legal institutions are inherently racist. The life and times of Ali provide the evidence in plain sight.
Everyone likes to sugarcoat history, and few of us are willing to admit it. We praise an uncle, post-mortem, even if they were just a little bit perverted. We remember grandmother’s famous sweet potato pie and never mention how bland some of her other food was. That is life and a testament to our questionable ability to forgive and forget.
However, stories like Ali’s must be presented transparently. Some historians are quick to squeeze the serum from the fruit and neglect to discuss what happened to the seeds. America likes to brag about “the juice” without discussing the seed of racism that continues to rob the sweet taste of success from people who don’t look like the original squeezers. (Jefferson, Washington, et al.)
Parenthetically, you should be leery of those “America the paradise” historians who will whitewash Ali and recast him as some candy-assed, highly celebrated conformist, ready-made for a “Wheaties” box. Ali didn’t earn that coveted cereal-box cameo until 1999, after the Olympic torch.
Before Ali became an “accept- able Negro”, most White folks and an appreciable number of Negroes hated him. To this crowd, his first names were uppity, loudmouth, troublemaking, and a few other invectives, but they all agreed that his surname was Nigger. Thus, from Clay to Ali, he grew up in an environment that remains hostile, hurtful, and humiliating to himself and his race.
Major PBS projects like Ali always have significant corporate funding, so we owe a debt of gratitude to Bank of America, philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, and so many others on the PBS donor list.
Muhammad Ali will be a blockbuster to some and a re- view for others. But, for most of us Ali fanatics, it is just PBS programming some more Smart TV!
Vincent L. Hall is an author, activist, and an award-winning columnist.