a fresco for the king of excess


How to accurately summarize Muhammad (and not Muhammad, because he was American) Ali? How to condense the fate of such a complex and fascinating man? Many documentary filmmakers have tried the exercise, oh so perilous. A number have broken their teeth there. Perhaps quite simply because it is impossible to reduce Ali’s exceptional journey in a single film.

The greatest boxer of all time deserves our attention. This is the stance of Ken Burns, a customary of very feature films (he notably directed The Civil War, where he recounts in eleven hours the four years of the Civil War). With its documentary series in four parts totaling seven hours, soberly titled Mohammed Ali, Ken Burns offers a wonderful immersion in the life of the champion. This monumental format was needed to draw a faithful, authentic and exhaustive portrait of the heavyweight.

Dazzling rise

Through fabulous archives, some unpublished, and numerous interviews – two of Ali’s daughters, Rasheda and Hana, their mothers, the very controversial promoter Don King, or even the boxer Larry Holmes … -, the director manages to explore with great humanity all the facets of the triple world champion. Patiently, then, but always in a rhythmic and dynamic way, he unfolds the story of the one who was, as Norman Mailer wrote, « the most perfect embodiment of the spirit of the XXe century “.

Read the story (in 2014): Article reserved for our subscribers Life and Death of Mohamed Ali, or a History of America

Originally Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, a lower middle class black kid from Louisville, Ky. The first part of the documentary follows the meteoric rise of the young man, already loudmouthed and insolent, to the top of professional boxing: a fascinating piece of life on which most films devoted to Ali always pass a little too quickly.

Then there is, of course, the boxer dancer, the heavyweight who dazzles as much with his incredible footwork as by the speed of his sharp left direct. The extraordinary athlete, the genius of the noble art who “Floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee”. On a purely sporting level, boxing fans will be delighted by the many images of fights, including those less known to the general public.

See the visual: Mohamed Ali, the fighter of the century

One of the great strengths of this documentary is to emphasize the personal and political commitments of the boxer. Because his biggest fights, the “Champ” led them outside the rings. Converted to Islam, the one who will henceforth be known under the name of Muhammad Ali will refuse, in the name of his faith, his incorporation for the Vietnam War and will be stripped of his world titles. Honed for years by a large section of white and Christian America, Ali has never deviated from his beliefs. Herald of Black Power, he has become a global symbol of freedom and courage.

A revolutionary, charismatic and flamboyant pioneer, Ali also had his dark side, which the film does not forget to mention: his multiple infidelities, the moment when he turned his back on his friend Malcolm X, his assumed cruelty when he humiliated his adversaries with great reinforcement trash-talking (“Verbal provocation”), his oversized ego … Really, Ken Burns manages to say everything and thus pays all the more honor to the planetary icon.

Mohammed Ali, four-part documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon (EU, 2021, 4 × 110 min). Available on demand on Arte.tv until March 11, 2022.