TV Review: Muhammad Ali, PBS’ and Ken Burns’ White Rock Star

The show, the after-party, the hotel: metaphorically busting up American hotel rooms in his youth, before he “grew up”

Muhammad Ali always made this reviewer laugh out loud, but this may be the first time that open cackle is the result of a very serious Ali documentary. Ken Burns, in filmmaking combo Blackface and cross-dress, takes the role of Black church grandmother with the big hat, waiting for her grandson Cassius to give up that Panther mess and return to their neighborhood AME.

To Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, Muhammad Ali is a Buddy Holly figure who got to live and grow old. He’s an Elvis-type who didn’t die suddenly on his toilet, a living, breathing hula hoop and frisbee, the dark fifth Beatle. Making a Third World activist who was a borderline revolutionary–someone who even Burns said was encouraging Afghan guerillas to overthrow the Soviet Union in his later years–into Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy took some skillful, involved work. The trio accomplishes this by using every rock-star convention, trope and cliche–the innocence, the power, the excess, the decline, the fall. There’s Ken Burns’ and Co.’s forced narration–aptly provided by Keith David–and then there’s Ali’s actual narration, so the socio-political-cultural tension is always there: Burns keeps trying to win the bout, the most prominent examples being that the Nation of Islam is treated like some sort of annoying cult-fad that Burns patiently waits to burn out, and Ali’s calls for Black/African/non-white solidarity just a phase of his–a step toward human consciousness (which only comes through illness and the subsequent white, matured sympathetic gaze, according to this tale), not the call for self-determining power.

Proving once again that PBS can put a pale frame on anything, this future award-winner can start with this writer’s mental tropies for chronological detail, where to put the episode cliffhanger, effective use of Digable Planets 🙂 and the proper poignancy, particularly at the close. If this presentation is the “white” Ali and The Trials of Muhammad Ali and When We Were Kings are respectively the political and Pan-African Ali, that means the only Ali story left to tell is one about his relationship to religion. At his best, Burns at least comes close to that–chronicling how the sinner who, now humbled, learned to ask for forgiveness. Ali had a lot to atone for–he was cruel to his opponents, the doc repeatedly says; the Black interviewees keep reminding the viewer that he took public umbrage to those Blacks who proudly represented America during the time of a worldwide Movement. That story is not emphasized here enough (although Burns would vehemently disagree), and the rationale for that lack of emphasis is that, for the purpose of this narrative, this Ali first peaks and, later, begins his denouncement at the Olympics, symbolically draped in Burns’ Love, Americana Style.

84-Word Review of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

They all put rings on it, but it wasn’t enough

If Marvel wants to dominate the next 25 action-adventure movie cycles, it is going to have to dial up to 11 and stay there, particularly with new characters and concepts. Formula is stifling any real character and plot innovation. Just giving characters a really good story so they can get their MCU membership passes is not enough. Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh saved this almost-ambitious movie about Asian mythology from mediocrity, but not by much. Being better than Black Widow is not a great accomplishment.

A 169-Word Review of the First Season of The CW’s “Superman and Lois” [SPOILERS!!!!!]

The epitome of work-life balance family drama, but with flights and tights

The show’s first season begins with the death of a mother and ends with the burial of a father, with the middle filled in with what family members create. A very radical combo of Man of Steel, Smallville and Lois and Clark merges with the last 30 years of Superman comics into a meditation on the sustaining of the family unit from primarily two sources–the Kents and the Cushings (Lana Lang’s brood). The finale teaser for Season 2 shows the reconstitution of a third as a result of, appropriately, a rocket landing at the Kent farm. The CW-ish, almost-emeging-adult inside shows that the family dynamics have just begun to shift, with Lois being given one hell of a personal retcon of sorts and the boys gaining a sister (pun intended). Having Superman go to a mental-emotional space where he has to prioritize the world most important to him at the moment will continue to make him not only relevant, but even a more permanent part of American folklore.

87-Word Review (not including P.S.) of “Space Jam: A New Legacy”

Critics are hard on this film because it is a betrayal of the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies spirit of parody and satire. No one at WarnerMedia cared about skewering itself–The Simpsons and Fox, anyone?–so the movie has way too much product placement done in the name of homage to more than 50 years of entertainment. The goal should be to generate laughter at the expense of the product and the studio, not to humble brag about how you have the world’s minds on lock.

P.S. See below for a classic example of Warner Bros. making fun of itself.

109-Word Review of “Black Widow”

“The only natural resource in the world that there is too much of: girls.” Because of the topic addressed, that line, uttered by the old-time Bond villain in this old-time-007-meets-Jason-Bourne flick, deserved a much more significant movie than this. At this point, the Marvel formula of drama-action-joke-repeat is irresistible to its shareholders, I’m sure, but it’s sad and a little frustrating to see such a good movie, led by a great star, subtly and not-so-subtly work against itself. When the accompanying (connected by Disney+) Simpsons short is only slightly more light than a serious, well-meaning film, it might be time for Marvel/Disney to re-assess after making the bank deposit.

74-Word [Major Spoilers] Review of “F9”

F9, Baby!

Okay, right, remember the Racer X storyline from Speed Racer? Now, remember UPN‘s much-maligned Homeboys From Outer Space? (You don’t! Good for you! LOL!) So put them together and you have…..well, if there was any doubt this is a past-films-cameo/supporting scene superhero franchise….. If you love these characters (as I have learned to do for about four films now, since The Rock was the group’s enemy), just go and have a good time!

98-Word Review of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” A.K.A. “The Snyder Cut”

Verdict: Much better than Joss Whedon (and I’m not by a long shot Snyder’s biggest fan; he thinks every superhero film is his Watchmen in disguise), but you should watch the chaptered film as a six-part mini-series. (Steppenwolf was actually a great villain! Who would’vethunk?!?) What was fascinating to me was how much the Black characters–Cyborg and his father–were the center of the story; Ray Fisher and Joe Morton are probably celebrating, and should! Worth the wait, and I hope this very dark universe will continue in episodic TV form on HBO Max. Superfriends overload? Never!

UPDATE: So it was supposed to be episodic TV, a mini-series, from the beginning of the HBO Max deal, but…..

BlackLash Event No. 4: Blackness/Pan-Africanism and Chadwick Boseman

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Blackness and Pan Africanism (1)

Blacklash report 4

Chadwick Boseman, Howard University, and Linkages

Why these Carr-Hunter discussions are growing in popularity. Look how Dr. Carr links Chadwick to: a) Black playwrights, b) Black bookstores, c) Black protest, d) to Black cultural development. And then e) THOTH!