Long time visual biographer Ken Burns has produced yet another in-depth profile of an icon to share with viewers.
In his latest, Muhammad Ali, Burns and his creative team look deep into the life of one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century, exploring the true nature of the man who called himself “The Greatest” and proved it with his athletic power in the ring and his charm, wit and outspokenness outside of it.
The four‑part, eight‑hour documentary series shows how at the height of his fame in the 20th century, Ali challenged Americans’ racial prejudices, religious biases, and notions about what roles celebrities and athletes play in our culture. He inspired people all over the world with his message of pride and self‑affirmation, eventually becoming a symbol for peace and pacifism as we moved into the 21st century.
Burns says that some have asked of him, “So why Muhammad Ali now?” To which he responds, “We just kind of laugh because we made the decision to go ahead with this in 2013, started working in 2014, and we have been working ever since on it. There was no sense it would arrive at precisely this moment or we could possibly know what’s happening in this moment.”
Examining not only Ali’s prowess in the ring, Burns says one of the most important moments in the documentary features another type of victory for the boxer.
When Ali refused to report for mandatory military service due to religious principles, he was convicted of the criminal offense of violating Selective Service laws by refusing to be drafted.
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Burns explains that he was facing five years in jail and a fine, and had had his boxing career interrupted for three and a half years as the Supreme Court reviewed his case.
“When he learns that he’s been exonerated and he can go back to boxing, some reporter sticks a microphone in his face and says, ‘What do you think about the system?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t know who is going to be assassinated tonight. I don’t know whose inequality or injustice is going to take place.’”
The significance of this is that, as Burns says, “a very, very young man, in a moment of victory when he could gloat and be Muhammed Ali, the braggart, [instead] he’s remembering Emmett Till, who was murdered and tortured was his age, more or less.”
Tying this to present day, Burns says, “And though [Ali] didn’t know it was coming, he was also talking about Rodney King and Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in that moment. He could have just said, ‘Yup, this was good for me,’ but he didn’t. He knew where he stood in relationship to everything.”
There are many instances of this caliber throughout Ali’s life that are portrayed in the series, says Burns. “[It’s] just mind‑blowing, that somebody this young or somebody this poised or somebody in a sport so brutal could have that kind of heart, this capacious, large heart that makes you realize at the end of the day that he’s a prophet of love.”
Asked if he feels it’s contradictory for a white filmmaker to helm a project featuring a prominent Black man, Burns responded with, “I am in the business of history, and that includes everyone. I have throughout my professional life tried to tell the story of this country in an inclusive way, and that means talking about race and trying to tell stories from multiple perspectives.”
He adds, “That’s what my films have been trying since the very beginning to not do, to not exclude, to not put African American history in February, the coldest and shortest month, but to put it in the burning center of American history, as it is, as it should be, born on the idea that all people were created equal.”
In the case of this project, Burns says that, “40 percent of the nucleus of our crew, producers, editors, assistant editors, directors, writers, 40 percent are people of color. 53 percent are women.”
As a whole on this topic, Burns says clearly, “I do not accept that only people of a particular background can tell certain stories about our past, particularly in the United States of America.”
Having seen the finished product, Rasheda Ali, Muhammad’s daughter, says, “I told Ken this after I watched [it, that] it is beautiful to watch this film show how this man [was] changing the world at 18, 19, 20, how he’s constantly evolving with trials and tribulations in his life, how he’s using his core principles in his life to overcome major challenges.”
Reflecting on Ali’s life versus his own work, Burns says, “It’s really tough to make a good film, but it is not brain surgery. It is not giving up your entire professional career and refusing induction into the draft and, not the literal charge of five years in jail and $10,000 fine.”
The piece, says Burns, “Certainly it intersects with all the major issues of the late 20th century, of race and politics and faith and religion and sports and all that sort of stuff.”
But he’s quick to add that it above all else, the documentary is really about Ali the man, saying, “there’s something more to him that makes him so compelling.”
‘Muhammad Ali’ airs Sunday, September 19th through Thursday, September 22nd. Check your local PBS station for exact air times.