When Muhammad Ali passed away over five years ago at the age of 74, the entire United States mourned him like no other athlete before or since. Both Democratic and Republican political leaders expressed their sadness for the fallen legend. In 2016, Ali’s memorial was broadcast nationwide. He was given a loving farewell on the same par as fallen American presidents. In part two of the Ken Burns PBS Muhammad Ali docuseries, What’s My Name examines how between 1964 and 1970 America had the exact opposite feeling for Ali. It was a feeling of hatred for the outspoken and controversial heavyweight champion of the world.
(You can read my review of part one).
Recently, Netflix premiered the documentary Blood Brothers that examined the relationship between two of the most iconic Black men in the history of the world, Ali and his Nation of Islam mentor Malcolm X. What’s My Name, in my opinion, does a much more thorough job investigating the relationship and eventual fallout between the two larger than life men. Burns, along with his daughter Sarah and David McMahon, bring to light the fact that Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad ordained his son Herbert as both Ali’s personal and business manager, a fact not mentioned in Blood Brothers. Herbert’s role as Ali’s personal and business manager all but insured that Ali would side with Elijah in his ongoing feud with Malcolm. The filmmaking trio also revealed Ali’s dark side during this time period that began with his betrayal of Malcolm X.
Once again Keith David’s narration of this time period brings to light not only Ali’s dark side, but the incredibly racist undertone of America and the media both against his joining the Nation of Islam and his stance on the Vietnam War. Ali’s brutal beatings of both Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson as punishment for not calling him Ali and instead Cassius Clay, were two of the most horrific beatings in the history of boxing. Ali purposely carried both men to punish them for doing what he called “White America’s bidding.” Meanwhile, David’s narration of racist journalists Dick Young and Jimmy Cannon’s denouncement of Ali’s stance on the Vietnam War is eerily similar to the same type of treatment Colin Kaepernick had to undergo when he refused to stand for the National Anthem as a means to bring to light police brutality against young Black males. Over 50 years later and some things still remain the same.
The filmmaking trio brilliantly show footage of Ali’s campus speeches in the late 1960s in which Ali not only talked about the unjust Vietnam War, but the brainwashing of Americans through the use of color imagery. He constantly asked the college audiences why was everything that’s considered pure white and everything evil black? These outtakes of Ali speaking showed just how comfortable Ali was expressing himself and his beliefs. He had become an incredible public speaker despite being a poor student in high school. The trio brought to light just how brilliant of a man Ali was with this archival footage.
What’s My Name ends with Ali finally getting to fight Jerry Quarry in Atlanta on October 26, 1970, over three and a half years since he was convicted of draft dodging and exiled from boxing. The ending sets the stage for part three of the documentary, the return of Ali to the spotlight as the most famous athlete in the history of the world. I eagerly anticipate this chronicling of what I consider the greatest comeback in sports history.