I recently started watching the Ken Burns film on Muhammad Ali (I tend to watch things in 20-30 minute chunks, so I’m not done yet). Even after having watched just the intro, I had some thoughts I wanted to share. Consider this post similar to those “reaction videos” you see on YouTube, but a serious one.
Like many others, I know Muhammad Ali as a legend, not just in sports, but just simply world famous and one of a kind. But I don’t really know his story in detail. I don’t recall any lessons about him in school (I hope this has changed, and that kids going to school today in America learn him well). In fact, my first thoughtful look at who he was came when I watched the documentary When We Were Kings back in the mid-00’s on Netflix (back when you requested DVDs by mail!).
Now, I don’t have a crystal clear memory, so I remember that documentary more as a study of contrasts, with Ali being portrayed as soulful and in touch, whereas Foreman was portrayed as starkly out of touch, especially with the symbolism of his German Shepherd as a memory of oppression in Zaire. That, and the brilliance of the “rope-a-dope” Ali employed to tire Foreman out and win the fight, simply brilliant.
Before sharing my own thoughts, though, I wanted to share the main ideas that the intro introduced, because my thoughts don’t directly follow from the content. And the clearest way to share the film’s ideas is through the quotes used.
The first idea presented is that Ali was incredibly polarizing. To quote writer Dave Remnick from the voiceover: “People hated him—whether it was along racial lines, class lines, Vietnam lines, political lines, religious lines, or people just couldn’t stand him. And people of course had the opposite—and this was, I loved him, loved him! But, you had an opinion about him.”
And then, as Ali puts it himself, “I’m cocky, I’m proud, I say what I wanna say—ain’t no more big n****s talkin’ like this.” Wow, just awesome.
And the great voiceover quotes keep coming. From writer Todd Boyd: “He was a pioneer, he was a revolutionary, he was a groundbreaker, a guy known simply as The Greatest.”
And writer Walter Mosley: “To have the chutzpah, and to be a Black Man in America, it was outlandish.”
And Ali again, at the end of the intro: “The price of freedom comes high. I have paid, but I am free.” I don’t know the exact historical timing of this quote, but I believe if refers to multiple prices Ali paid, including for joining the Nation of Islam, and most momentously for being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war.
All this, and other clips, all set to an absolutely on-point soundtrack. For documentaries, you don’t get much more exciting than this.
But for me, the idea that stuck in my mind, the one I wanted to share, wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the intro. It’s this idea: that self respect means to be yourself. Now for Ali, his life is a Masterclass in this idea. But many of us are not Muhammad Ali, and the path may be different. For some, that path is more personal and quiet; for others, it is as loud and out there as Ali’s. And while Ali knew who he was from a very young age, for others, knowing yourself might take longer. But that idea, that self respect means being yourself, is too important not to share.
Furthermore, being yourself means having a voice (literal voice, a visual presence, many ways) and letting that voice be heard. Ali’s freedom was largely the freedom for his voice to be heard around the world, to affect and resonate with the world, and to be remembered by the world for all time since. The remarkable thing is the prices he paid to have his voice heard, and how true he was to himself through it all.