Review: Muhammad Ali, by Ken Burns

( photo by Neil Leifer)

In Part III of The Sea And The Mirror, his remaking of The Tempest, W. H Auden has Caliban break every single literary wall. In form and function, it is a departure for the poet and Shakespeare reader, as he makes Shakespere’s self-taught slave address the audience, author, or anyone set in their ways in regards to race and art; doing so in the Whitmanesque prose cadences he leaned into years after he went to America and moved away from the formal perfections that made him a literary icon. To this day, it remains controversial among scholars: despised by Philip Larkin, thought an abomination by an anxious and young Allen Ginsberg, and thought to be sacrilegious by (rolls eyes) Harold Bloom.

It is this Author’s opinion that they were all missing something. The author of “negroes” and a breathtaking blues ballad sequence, Auden held the liberal artist flag as high as anyone who put pen to paper in the first half of the 20th century. When he is asking Shakespeare “could you be guilty of unpardonable treachery” of “bringing him along” as a creature in his narrative, he is asking a meta question to both the author and the literary culture that made Thomas Dixon’s and Thomas Wolfe’s negro monsters pop art. Even as he goes back into the role, he is telling the reader and author that he “is the too solid flesh you must acknowledge as your own”. A bull in the china shop of Jacobean propriety, Auden’s Caliban is the brother who knows he is pushed out of his mind, a supernova who’s presence shakes every perception one has of Shakespeare's last play.

If one were mad enough to describe the importance of Muhammad Ali in a long sentence, it would be that he was Auden’s Caliban come to life, a figure whose self-awareness, consciousness, and sheer electric charisma carried so much of a people’s history in its subtext. He was also one of the most handsome, principled, and bravest men in America at a time when any of the three would get a black man killed. Also like the great poet’s imagining of the Shakespeare angry self-taught slave -Ali said to White America that if it was going to break him, he would have to do it in broad daylight. How he did end up breaking, however, has almost endless layers of complexity, and it is to Ken Burns credit that, In Muhammad Ali, that he captures so many of them. In three parts, it is a maximalist work that earns every…



Robert Lashley

Writer. Author. Former Jack Straw and Artist Trust Fellow. The baddest ghetto nerd on the planet.