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.

CONGRATS TO……..

…..Wayne Dawkins, who has just been named the Coordinator of the Department of Multimedia Journalism in the Morgan State University School of Global Journalism & Communication!


I’ve known Dawkins for more than half my life. He was a servant leader before the person who thought that term up graduated college! LMAO!!!! 

Seriously, the former award-winning reporter and current AFRO columnist is an author many times over–independent and top university press. He had been a Full Professor at Hampton, but now is essential at Morgan. 
Oh, and his hobby was worth not only a journal article but has been archived at Columbia University, where he won a prestigious award. And I mentioned he’s now the official historian of the National Association of Black Journalists, right?


Okay, enough of this! I don’t have the time to document past and current Wayne’s adventures! Neither does he! LOL! 

Some Brief Words About That Nikole Hannah-Jones/Ta-Nehisi Coates Announcement

This is significant because this move will now establish a national, 21st-century Black liberal journalism tradition. I just wanted to point out that this will not erase what award-winning journalism professor Allissa Richardson has written: that post-modern Black activism–symbolically represented now by Darnella Frazier--finds mainstream journalism irrelevant.

With the Black liberal J-wing on the way to being established, this allows a Black Left to do what it is doing now–to build itself as an alternative. In the olden days, the best Black newspapers held all views. Here’s a book on that.

And with Haiti in the news, here’s an example of the present and future:

And the below is an on-the-ground Haiti discussion from this morning’s ReMix!

Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” (Inauguration Poem)

This sure beats Maya Angelou’s “a rock, a river, a tree” 🙂

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanda_Gorman

“The Hill We Climb”

When day comes we ask ourselves

Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry,

A sea we must wade.

We braved the belly of the beast;

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.

And the norms and notions of what just is

Isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow we do it;

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed

A nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time

Where a skinny black girl descended from slaves

And raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president,

Only to find herself reciting for one.

And yes we are far from polished, far from pristine,

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t striving to form a union that is perfect.

We are striving to forge a union with purpose,

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

And so we lift our gaze not to what stands between us,

But what stands before us.

We close the divide, because we know to put our future first,

We must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms

So we can reach out our arms to one another.

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:

That even as we grieved, we grew,

That even as we hurt, we hoped,

That even as we tired, we tried,

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious—

Not because we will never again know defeat

But because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision

That everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree,

And no one shall make them afraid.

If we’re to live up to our own time,

then victory won’t lie in the blade but in all the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promised glade,

The hill we climb if only we dare it.

Because being American is more than a pride we inherit,

It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded,

But while democracy can be periodically delayed

It can never be permanently defeated.

In this truth, in this faith we trust,

For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption.

We feared at its inception.

We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour,

But within it we found the power

To author a new chapter,

To offer hope and laughter,

To ourselves sow. While once we asked:

How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?

Now we assert: How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was,

But move to what shall be,

A country that is bruised but whole,

Benevolent but bold,

Fierce and free.

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation

Because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.

Our blunders become their burdens

But one thing is certain:

If we merge mercy with might and might with right,

Then love becomes our legacy

And change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.

With every breath of my bronze pounded chest,

We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

We will rise from the golden hills of the West.

We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.

We will rise from the lakeland cities of the Midwestern states.

We will rise from the sunbaked South.

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover

In every known nook of our nation,

In every corner called our country,

Our people, diverse and beautiful,

Will emerge battered and beautiful.

When day comes we step out of the shade,

Aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it,

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Narratives: Remembering Stanley Crouch

A very fine article I found reminded me of the type of serious longform writing and print-era that, once I discovered it, shaped and fascinated me as a young newspaper reporter. The Village Voice and its crew, of which Stanley Crouch was a part, were in this great, fascinating NYC-centric, newsstand literary universe.

I was definitely not a fan of the content, philosophy or personal style of Crouch (who had left The Voice when I began to read it), but I was a fan of the idea of him. This act of remembering–published in one of the remaining traditional 20-centuryish places left for this kind of writing–brought back memories of a time long gone: of picking up The Voice at Newark Penn Station while on the way to or back from Harlem on an early 1990s Friday, all the while wondering what was possible for me and writing.

Later in the 1990s, embedded in graduate school, I was even more obsessed with The Writers’ Life. For example, I actually bought a transcript and video of the below because I wanted to absorb this discussion.  (Not surprisingly, these writers–who were actually post-World-War-II-nouns, who wrote in the mid-20th century for a living–didn’t see that nonfiction and fiction were going to move en masse to the academy.) I succeeded: this 23-year-old talk has been almost completely memorized over the years and, as a result, it serves as part of my internal writing clinic when/as I write.

https://charlierose.com/videos/3810

My Latest Very-Quickie-Type Book Reviews……

are here and here.

Mumia Abu-Jamal and Linn Washington in 1995

Compiling an anthology about Abu-Jamal, and Linn Washington gave me this article, published shortly after Abu-Jamal escaped the guillotine the first time a quarter of a century ago. It reminds me of dose days, when I was a part-time intern at the National Newspaper Publishers Association and constantly surrounded by Black newspapers. I always had a soft spot for The Philadelphia New Observer because it would print these huge, remarkable 20,000-word Black/Afrikan history supplements by James G. Spady, then a Black Philadelphia living institution.

A Quick Thank You To……

…..my friend Annette Alston, who just finished scanning 700 pages of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s FBI files (1968-1974, during his Panther days) for me–using her iPhone! (Do we REALLY have any legitimate excuses now for not preserving, holding onto and using our historical documents?!? 🙂 )

Some Unorganized Thoughts As To How We Live Now

I’m listening to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo now as I type, telling me how long COVID can stick on surfaces and hang in the air. He’s become my daily obsession. The Mumia Abu-Jamal event I’m waiting for is a little less than four hours ahead.

Still meditating on what happened just a couple of hours ago. I opened the front door, unmasked, waiting for my Whole Foods delivery, and immediately saw a sanitation worker–Friday is Garbage Day in our ward–in distress. Something powderish (?) had spilled on his face while working on our block, and he was less than panicked but more than disturbed.

He asked for warm water and soap and, thanks to me and the homeowner, Annette Alston, we quickly compiled.

Coming back out, I hear a voice to my right yell, “Amazon!” Delivery Dude is peeping the happenin’, so he quickly drops my bags at the foot of the stairs (social distancing, rigghht) and does a great imitation of Ricochet Rabbit. Annette hands me my mask to wear–after all, I’m now in close proximity to two people–and for the first time since the Apocolopyse, I wear it. I’ve been inside the house for weeks, writing my Mumia bio–only leaving the house to take out the garbage–so I hadn’t fully accepted this reality until I finally yielded to Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

Cuomo is talking now about an “economic tsunami” and is daring Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) to allow states to declare bankruptcy legally. “I dare you to do that!”

I really felt for the Sanitation Brother, an Essential Worker. This is not the time to be dealing with unknown substances. What was on his face? Oh, man…..

A neighbor from across the street is checking from her window, asking about his welfare. (Newark is a small town that, paradoxically and correctly, looks like a Big Ghetto from the outside.)

“What did we learn?” Cuomo is asking.

As a “lifelong student of Black media” (a quote from my bio), it’s fascinating how fast we have Zoomed along.  We were well along the road to becoming our own Black public-affairs shows via Facebook Live before the drip-blip, but it’ll be interesting to see how much of Black America will just junk prepared broadcast packages altogether for the live and interactive, the digital harambee. (Meanwhile, The Afro-American newspaper is trying to hold on, having laid off 25 percent of its staff.) I like to approach the study and teaching of media history from many perspectives, and one is from the changing of habits. Are we, slowly and eventually, the “B-SPAN” (Black C-SPAN) I’ve/we’ve been looking for?

Cuomo reads a letter from a Kansas farmer who has sent a mask for a New York health worker. “God Bless America,” Cuomo declared, who is not, he keeps saying, running for president. 🙂

Now he’s talking about taking versus giving. I’m glad Annette and I were able to help the brother. In this time of fear and uncertainty, our community is standing steady. He thanked me as, of course, we are all thanking them.

 

Netflix “Who Killed Malcolm X?” Doc: Nine Thoughts On Malcolm As CSI, Stagecraft Over Sincerity

1) Now everyone will see Newark the way I see it: as a small town. Treating it as a “small town with deadly secrets” was amusing. It is a place where, if you ride a bus or sit somewhere and be quiet, you will hear Old Heads talk about their time with The Nation. Now I finally understand why, in a city where historically you can get killed for looking at someone wrong, Bradley was able to walk around untouched. You also now know that we, as a group, care more about collective, community advancement than ideology and argument: the comment by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka that he learned from his father to “leave that alone because that won’t advance our cause” is classic Newark. Congrats to my brother, Baba Zayid Muhammad, for his honesty in this documentary. He educated me a lot about what this Black Power city is still like. I absolutely believe that Newark “got there first” in Black Power zealotry.

2) Continuing with Newark: why would Bradley be in Booker’s Newark mayor campaign commercial? Why would New Jersey Lt. Gov. Shelia Oliver be at Bradley’s funeral when she knew?!? Point-blank, Newark is a community service city, and all the community servants know each other. If you do “change your life around” and “do something positive,” particularly for our youth, we wipe your slate clean. That how we be. If Bradley had killed, say, Rahim Johnson, it wouldn’t even be brought up.

3) Last Newark note: I love the irony of Bradley’s high school being eventually being renamed after Malcolm. 🙂

4) It was extremely annoying that Peter Goldman, who wrote 85 percent of this documentary’s content back in the 1970s (!!!!!), was almost invisible, blotted out. The only thing more annoying is that Baba Zak Kondo was “second historical bananna” to David Garrow–this documentary’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. Kondo should have been the main voice here, and his wrap-up almost redeems this time-waster.

5) The big winner here was WABC-TV, who clearly sold a lot of footage. (Why did the documentarians keep misdating that Talmadge Hayer interview as 1970? That was very annoying and needs to be fixed!) See how great “Like It Is” was, folks outside of New York? Today I am very proud to have a doctoral dissertation that has a small part devoted to it. I will appreciate this Nextflix series forever if it leads to the show finally getting archived.

6) The “search” for Bradley was ridiculous stagecraft. And where were articles like these, since Bradley was so difficult to find? LOL! This program could have easily been cut by three hours. The phony drama should have been replaced with more on the Ali-Malcolm schism. That deserves its own doc or movie.

7) And speaking of future MX media products, my vote for the next movie or documentary needs to be solely based on his extraordinary travel diary. The fact that Malcolm tried to unify the African-Muslim world–and that he chose to return to America when he had choices to possibly stay alive longer–is a story that desperately needs to be told.

8) Um, where was this part? Did I miss it when I was in the bathroom? Did I miss any mention of the Minister? What’s going on? And if Goldman and Kondo were read so carefully, why didn’t Obi-Wan tell Luke that the FBI reported that Louis X was at the Newark mosque on the day of the assassination?!?

9) This could have been a lot worse, seeing that Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was the exec producer and Manning Marable’s wife a consultant. At least this is better than Spike’s treatment. This puts Spike’s movie in the fiction category the way Marable’s disastrous bio, at its best, put The Autobiography in that same category.