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.

And So The Professor Shows His Age: Some Unorganized, Unresearched Thoughts About 2021 (and Beyond) Black Media

So much has changed in the 20 years since I wrote about now-known-as “legacy media” Black Entertainment Television, Radio One, 1190 WLIB-AM and WABC-TV’s Like It Is! Turns out the “new Black media” I ballayhooed in my very-flawed doctoral dissertation back then was waaaay premature! Nowadays, my study seems more like the “last Black mass media” story, not a “new media” story. After all, the Web was under 10 years old when I graduated and Web 2.0 was just on the horizon.

(The jury might still be out on whether my promoted ideological perspective [Black media has two prongs: it fights white hegemony and reinforces Black/African spirituality] and formula have current value, but since individuals can do what they want to do now, based on their own (grounded) theories and phenemological-based values, those might be equally obselete. Shhh! Don’t tell my Seton Hall University “Mass Media and Minorities” students this! LOL! )

From my vantage point, the de-massified media world we live in now comes from a combo of cheap-to-free tech, increased corporate hegemony and, frankly, the need and want of individual or collective championing or branding, depending on ones’ perspective and/or agenda. The three factors combined can be admittedly dangerous, but I wanna see the content first before I judge.

(Between the development of these new digital networks, and the great series and book on the digital transformations of Black journalism, all happening within the last two years, I definitely feel like a scholarly and journalistic dinosaur. And perhaps that description’s accurate: Hell, my professional 2021-onward goal is still to write something as good as Gay Talese’s now 55-year-old Esquire narrative classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” or James Baldwin’s 60-year-old Harper’s feature “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” articles only a little older than me! That shows you where I’m at! LOL!)

The loose, unresearched chronology I have seen and now see: 

1970-1980s: Black people created grassroots and/or national newspapers and syndicated print columns in Black newspapers, public-affairs shows and syndicated radio commentaries (and BET, which, it can be argued, comes out of both Black radio’s tradition and its white hegemonic corporate conglomeration, beginning roughly in the mid-1970s).

1980s-1990s: Black people created a) print magazines, then b) syndicated radio shows, then c) websites.

2000-present: Black people attempted all of the above, and then added radio and TV networks (Cathy Hughes’ TV One being the most prominent). Then website TV and podcasting, micro-blogging (FB and Twitter), social media TV and podcasting, and now, thanks to YouTube’s and now Zoom’s, and Crowdcast’s, etc., tested viability, the new era (and this time I think I’m right :)) of Black people creating their own BETs!


In my view, this chronology exists because of two reasons: the tech to produce and distribute became cheap or free and corporate America stepping to get every market they can.


It’s a golden era, really. As long as everything is archived and everyone is to the left of Larry Elder ;), I’m fine with it!

TV Review: Really, Really Late 94-Word Critique of “Respect”

Kissing Away The Boo-Boos

If Season Three of Genius was about Aretha Franklin standing on her own two feet and not letting men dominate her, then this very-fast moving, more symbolic story is about the protection only a true parent can provide. Surrounded by domineering men, Jennifer Hudson portrays the Soul Queen as a woman puttting together, then self-destructively pulling apart, the puzzle pieces of her life. It is only when she embraces her dead mother and her Heavenly Father does she fully form. Interestingly enough, perhaps we need even more hours of Franklin to really understand her.

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!