Waaayyyy too long. So when I finished it, I started it again. 🙂
I have no doubt that Al Letson poured his heart and soul into this investigation. His rage contained but explained, he and the other investigative journalist connected the dots well to the veteran Black police investigator who, for whatever reason, put cuffs on himself, who decided not to go the extra mile. Even in the “woke” era, no one dares the individual neck weight-pressure of the historic foot but those who will also risk being marginalized, un-alphabetized (ABC, MSNBC, and on)–and these Mississippi gunshots raced into history before then. This was a rare case because of the complete set of uncovered facts–the results of “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” “dozens of staffers” and “three years,” went Leston’s refrain throughout the almost two months. The sad sum was silences old and new. So now what? The public-radio medium’s constraints needed–and got–Letson’s Broadway showmanship to be powerfully pulled into the servicing of Billey Joe Williams. There could have been angrier, more sardonic ways to end Reveal’s report, but such a stand would not help anyone directly involved and perhaps instead only create national psychic reverb, causing dainty cups and saucers to smash, destroying a good brunch in the den or the Saturday-afternoon soccer-practice drive. More cuffs. 😦
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.
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!