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.

Asante Sana, Dr. Julia (“Judy”) Miller and Glen Ford

The Male Principle and The Female Principle, grit and fierceness inner and outward.

Coming out of the 1960s into the 1970s, both pioneers filled with revolutionary consciousness, both using work to create new space for words to propel The Race forward.

One celebrated for her expansive heart, the other celebrated for his sharp machete.

Personal versus/and ideological.

But both understood the power of planting yourself within a role, and then being left to the never-ending, back-breaking, un-privledged, un-advantaged labor of pulling out your own weeds.

And, by doing that, creating your own eras.

Asante Sana, Bill McCreary….

Bill McCreary

….for so many things: “The McCreary Report,” “Black News” and your being in charge of WLIB-AM news in the early 1960s. That was when you hired some guy named Gil Noble.

Asante Sana, Paul Brock

Paul Brock, the fixer

As my friend Malik Russell once said of him, “He is Black media royalty.” I knew him as a fixer–a guy who knew everybody in Washington, D.C. and every other center of power and could solve anyone’s problem. I will never forget that he let me tag along with him to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Colorado.

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.

My Latest Very-Quickie-Type Book Reviews……

are here and here.