Ken Burns has spent seven years sorting through hundreds of hours of archival footage, interviewing family members and scholars and even reconstructing boxing matches to bring viewers into the life of one of America’s greatest athletes and most beloved icons, Muhammad Ali.
“This is a man who is a larger-than-life human being and he has unbelievable talents,” Burns said. “He’s the greatest athlete of the 20th century, maybe of all time, but he’s also got huge outsized flaws, as well, which we were wanting to explore and understand him.”
Burns co-directed the four-part film, called Muhammad Ali, with his oldest daughter, Sarah, and her husband, David McMahon. Hoping to bring a fresh perspective to the extensive canon of Ali films and books, the team set out to create a comprehensive retelling of Ali’s life from his birth in Jim Crow-era Louisville, Kentucky, to his death five years ago from Parkinson’s disease.
WBEZ’s Reset sat down with Burns to discuss the film’s discoveries — some of which were news even to scholars and family members — and how Ali’s legacy can still be felt today. Muhammad Ali airs on four consecutive nights, Sept. 19-22 at 8 p.m., on PBS.
Here are edited highlights from the conversation.
On Muhammad Ali’s lasting impact
Ken Burns: Muhammad Ali intersects with all of the major themes of the last half of the 20th century: the role of sports in society; the role of the Black athlete; definitions of Black manhood and Black masculinity; civil rights, not just as one thing but as a fluid, dynamic thing; race, of course; politics; war; sex; faith; religion; Islam. I mean there’s almost nothing that he wasn’t connected to that we aren’t still talking about and thinking about to this day.
And at the end, what I think emerges is a portrait of freedom. It is really difficult for a Black person in the United States of America to escape the specific gravity of their mistreatment since 1619. This is a story of courage not just in the ring. This is a very difficult sport, but also his courage in opposing the war in Vietnam and sacrificing as a result three and a half years at the peak of his athletic prowess. And then it’s about love, which is a complicated word most people don’t want to deal with. But when you die as he did, the most beloved man on the planet, you’ve got to explore that, you’ve got to try to come to terms with, “What was it about him?”
Near the very end of the film, we cut away to a demonstration – we consciously do not show you what kind of demonstration it is or what it’s about – on the Brooklyn Bridge. And we’re drifting, zooming in slowly to a young Black woman who’s wearing a Black T-shirt with white letters and all that it says is, “Muhammad Ali.” For her, the preparation she needed for that demonstration were these two words that symbolize that freedom, that courage and that love.
On the documentary’s portrayal of Ali
Burns: We open the film with a scene that used to be safely and perfectly working deep within our third or fourth episode. But we moved it to the beginning because it shows a kind of humanness to him. He’s stealing cornflakes from his oldest child, Miriam, in a diner. And it’s just a way of saying, this is going to be about boxing, it’s going to be about the Nation of Islam, it’s going to be about Vietnam, it’s going to be about loud rumble young man, ‘float like a butterfly sting like a bee’ — it’s going to be about all of that. But there’s going to be an interiorness to this that is intimate and personal. He is a larger-than-life figure, he is a kind of superhero if you will. And yet he’s also a human being.
I was just with Rasheda in New York — that’s one of the daughters we interviewed — and she was talking about how she cried when she saw [footage] of him holding her as a little baby and saying, “Don’t you know your daddy is the baddest man on Earth?” She’d never seen that her whole life. That’s the best review you could possibly get, right?
On Ali’s spiritual journey with the Nation of Islam
Burns: He’d been attracted to the Nation of Islam for a while. He played a record over and over again as a teenager that was recorded, in fact, by a man who we now know as Louis Farrakhan. It was “A White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell.”
It’s not a fixed journey, it’s a completely fluid and dynamic one. But it’s very, very complicated because, of course, it means he has had to exclude and expel a relationship with one of his closest friends and teachers — Malcolm X — for a while. Elijah Muhammad exerted an extraordinary control over him. He’s the leader, based in Chicago, of the Nation of Islam. We felt obligated to try to not just make it a kind of simplistic explanation, but to dive deep into what it represented, the attractiveness of the Nation of Islam to Northern Blacks, who were tired of the slow pace of the nonviolent Christian, mostly agrarian, Southern civil rights movement as characterized by Dr. [Martin Luther] King and Ralph Abernathy and others.
On what Burns learned from the legendary boxer
Burns: He asks us to see more. He’s the most generous person I’ve ever come across, just unbelievably generous — as his ex-wife both complained and smiled about. He’d go out with $30,000 and come back with nothing, having given it away, paid the mortgage, paid the education, found the housing.
I hope my own life has been improved, or I can start or continue a journey of improvement that he helped ignite. His gravestone says, “Service to others is the price you pay for your room in Heaven.” And my sense is that Muhammad Ali has a large and capacious suite.