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.