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Ken Burns’ Muhammad Ali Documentary Review – Episode 1: The Greatest

ken burns muhammad ali documentary

In the history of mankind, no other historical figure has had more documentaries produced on his life than the man who has become even more mythical after passing away five years ago, Muhammad Ali. So how does one approach another documentary on the larger than life Ali? Ken Burns, along with his daughter Sarah & David McMahon, attempt to bring their offering to the table by doing a four part documentary chronicling the entirety of Ali’s 74 years on Earth. In part one titled The Greatest, the trio recap the first 22 years of Ali’s life with never before seen footage of him as a teenage amateur boxer and stories about his childhood told to them by Ali’s daughters Hana and Rasheda.

After delving into his childhood growing up in the racially segregated Louisville, Kentucky and his outstanding amateur career that culminated in Ali winning an Olympic gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympic games, the filmmaking trio take a comprehensive look both at Ali’s burgeoning early start to his pro boxing career and his widening interest in the Nation of Islam. These events are brilliantly narrated by the incredible voice of actor Keith David, a mainstay on Burns’ documentaries. David’s telling of the period of Ali’s career from 1960-1964 keeps the audience’s attention, even if they are boxing historians like myself. You can’t help but be riveted by the man whose voice I’ve always compared to what God would sound like.

I can never get enough of Ali’s, or Cassius Clay as he was known in the early part of his career, banter on archival footage. The trio gives you several moments of classic footage where young Cassius is bragging about becoming not only heavyweight champion of the world one day, but also  the “greatest” fighter of all-time. They also splice in speeches from his mentor and close friend Malcolm X. It is Cassius’s relationship with Malcolm and his February 25, 1964 fight with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston that the last hour of the documentary is dedicated to. It fluidly describes both in tremendous detail. The archival footage, along with David’s booming narration and guest commentators like the great Walter Mosley, thoroughly makes the audience feel the immense pressure young Cassius was facing heading into the biggest fight of his life. Inside the ring, despite shenanigans by Liston and his camp, Cassius proved that he was a vastly superior fighter than Liston. Beginning with part two, we will see the newly ordained Muhammad Ali and his even larger fight outside the ring; the fight to keep both his dignity and freedom as a young, outspoken Black man in America. Part one of Muhammad Ali is an incredible piece of filmmaking. I am eager to see what the next three parts of this documentary has to offer.

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