Opinion | Why We Can’t Quit Muhammad Ali

In the opener to his 1949 essay, “Reflections on Gandhi,” George Orwell writes, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” He then follows with a somewhat meandering, brilliant guide on how to think not just about Gandhi, but about everyone who has been practically beatified for their work on Earth. As with all of Orwell’s nonfiction work, “Reflections” bristles with a restless, contrarian energy that refuses to accept any party line about its subject and tries — desperately, at times — to place Gandhi within a capacious, yet still critical, context. How do you offer him credit for his bravery and the righteousness of his cause while still offering him the respect to wrestle with his ideas? “One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi,” Orwell concludes. “One may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary, but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”

I reread “Reflections” recently after watching Ken Burns’s new eight-hour documentary on Muhammad Ali. There are greater saints in American history, whether Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr., but few have generated quite as many books, films, documentaries and dorm room posters. For three generations of Americans, Ali has symbolized righteous defiance, charm and courageous conviction. We in America prefer the combatant saints who fought injustice over the kindly ones who humbly served the less fortunate. Ali is the exemplar of all that.

Every part of his life has been examined in depth, repurposed and then repurposed again. There’s the childhood incident when his bike was stolen, which, in turn, introduced him to his first boxing gym; the syndicate of white Louisville businessmen who controlled his early career; the relationship with Malcolm X; the “What’s my name?” fight with Ernie Terrell; the “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” quote; the three-and-a-half-year exile; the symbiotic, and oftentimes parasitic relationship with Howard Cosell; the triumph against George Foreman in Zaire; the near-death attrition of the Thrilla in Manila; the tragedy of the Larry Holmes fight; and the onset of the Parkinson’s that would ultimately silence him. All these are canon. With a few notable exceptions — Mark Kram’s book “Ghosts of Manila,in particular, which examines Ali’s brutal treatment of Joe Frazier before their third fight in Manila — Aliology does not follow Orwell’s rule about saints. The story may shift slightly, but the hagiographic frame does not.

The entire Ali canon is in Burns’s “Muhammad Ali” along with a lively cast of talking heads that stray a little beyond the Aliologists who show up in every Ali documentary. (The former boxer Michael Bentt is quietly the star of the film.) Burns is a master cataloger of consensus, especially across a broad sweep of history and so it would make sense that his film would follow those conventions. So, let’s get the plaudits out of the way: “Muhammad Ali” is the most thorough Ali documentary to date and certainly worth the nearly eight-hour runtime. The best Ali film will always be “When We Were Kings,” which glows with a wealth of archival footage, and provides an unusually intimate look at Ali in the weeks before the Rumble in the Jungle with Foreman. (One rule of documentary filmmaking: If you have a lot of archival film from the ’70s, it’s almost impossible to make a bad movie because that footage is going to be beautiful and evocative in its colors and its resolution.) But that’s a high bar to clear: “When We Were Kings” might be the best documentary ever made.

Burns, as he did with “Baseball,” “Jazz” and “Country Music,” has much broader ambitions. I admire Burns’s work, especially “The Vietnam War,” which I see as his masterpiece, but at his core, he approaches filmmaking in the same way that the Encyclopedia Britannica once approached the world of knowledge: The goal isn’t necessarily to make the most provocative or artistic film, but rather to make a heavy object that collects, and then dutifully reports the consensus at the time. That said, this is not a dull film. Burns, despite the length of his films, has a sense of what matters and what doesn’t, which makes “Muhammad Ali” immensely watchable.

But Burns also doesn’t upend any norms of Aliology: The boxer is still the saint. The film does spend quite a bit of time discussing some unflattering things, like his constant womanizing. But most of these detours from the hagiographic script feel rather perfunctory — almost as if Burns, like most viewers, doesn’t care all that much about what Ali did in the bedroom.

There have long been three questions in particular that get tossed out whenever the sainthood starts to feel a bit too orthodox or oppressive, and Burns, to his credit, examines them all.

First: To what extent was Ali a puppet for Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam?

Burns casts a bit of a withering eye at Elijah Muhammad and his son Herbert, who catches much of the blame for Ali’s refusal to stop fighting, even as his deterioration becomes abundantly clear. This seems fair enough, and although the film intimates that Ali was, indeed, a “puppet” for the Nation of Islam during his younger years, Burns also suggests that Ali evolved throughout his life. There’s a subtext to this line of thinking that I’ve always rejected, because it implies that we should question Ali’s sincerity toward the cause of racial justice; it seems to me that if a man spent his life speaking out on these causes and gave up three and a half years at the peak of his career because he refused to fight in an unjust war, we might as well believe him.

Second: Was Ali’s second fight against Sonny Liston, held at a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine, fixed?

Burns and his cast of talking heads give viewers a wink and a nod on this one; I will also give a wink and a nod here.

Third: Why did Ali call Joe Frazier every racist name in the book? When he mocked Frazier’s intelligence or when he brought out gorilla costumes to mock his nemesis, was he revealing an inner cruelty and mendacity that should cut away at his legend?

Ali’s treatment of Frazier has become the strongest argument against his sainthood, the one flaw that can’t be placed within some favorable context. The evidence, whether Ali’s repeated insistence that Frazier was an Uncle Tom, or the highly publicized news conference where he rhymed, “It’ll be a killer and a chiller and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila,” and punched at a tiny, toy ape, is incontrovertible and can’t be explained away as mere prefight banter. (Frazier certainly didn’t see it that way.) If Ali was so dedicated to the dignity of Black people, why did he belittle Frazier so in such a cruel and relentless manner, especially in front of an almost entirely white press corps?

The earliest Ali hagiographies either poked lightly at these ugly incidents or ignored them completely. But that trend has shifted recently, especially with Kram’s book and the release of 2011’s “When the Smoke Clears,” a sympathetic documentary about Frazier. Burns, for his part, employs his usual evenhanded tone, but he does devote an unusual amount of time to the topic, which doesn’t necessarily reflect Burns’s opinion on the issue, but rather how much this criticism has entered the Ali consensus.

Most people don’t care about any of this, though. Burns also seems ambivalent about what Ali actually said, outside of those sound bites everyone knows, most of which address his greatness inside the ring. For a film that’s almost eight hours long you don’t hear much of Ali’s thoughts on American politics outside of a clip where he says he agrees with the segregationist George Wallace, and the famed quote about the Vietcong. That type of precise editing runs through most Aliology: We know Ali stood against racism, but do we really know much beyond that?

Gandhi, for his part, was not so obscured at the time when Orwell wrote about him, but even his stated principles had begun to fade into an image of a gaunt man in robes. In “Reflections,” Orwell was trying to revive Gandhi’s actual ideas, some of which, like asceticism and the disavowal of close friends, Orwell did not particularly like. But these, like many of Gandhi’s ideas, were both prescriptive and political: He was asking you to do something. Ali, by contrast, was an athlete with a loyal following of famous writers, whether Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson or Gay Talese, who asked the reader to believe that his speed, grace and bravado inside the ring were also somehow political, which, I suppose they were, but not in any prescriptive way. The odd thing about American sainthood is that we seem to prefer those who, like Ali and Jackie Robinson, did not engage directly in the dirty world of politics, but rather stood as trailblazers or icons in sports or Hollywood. Or, as in the case of King, if we cannot ignore their political contributions, we strip their critiques of all the specifics and present them, too, as images and sound bites.

But perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising. Sainthood has always been about repeating images, whether on candles, stained glass or gilded icons. As an amateur Aliologist myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that the man and his ideas matter much less than the accumulation of his image in photographs and video. There are already too many Ali films, but I imagine there will be dozens more because Aliology is, in the end, a visual medium — beautiful, defiant and ultimately battered. His face and his voice in those clips you’ve seen over and over again are, in many ways, the country’s collective coping mechanism for the shame of Jim Crow and the Vietnam War. Ali is the beautiful alternative.

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang) writes for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Loneliest Americans.”

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