A Heavyweight Match

Ken Burns’ latest documentary focuses on the greatest athlete of the 20th century: Muhammad Ali.

By Chris Smith
The four-part series on the three-time champion debuts Sunday on PBS.getty images

Perhaps no athlete in history has captured the world’s attention like Muhammad Ali. The three-time heavyweight champion was not just a legendary boxer, but also a civil rights activist, an anti-war icon, a poet and a philanthropist. All those facets will be tackled by a new four-part docuseries series simply titled “Muhammad Ali” from famed documentarian Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon, who have set out to deliver a comprehensive examination of Ali’s life and career, from his childhood in Jim Crow Kentucky through his death in June 2016 after a long battle with Parkinson’s.

 

The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend, and the first episode will debut on PBS on Sunday, Sept. 19.

“He’s obviously the greatest athlete of the 20th century, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s the greatest of all time,” said Burns. “His life intersects all the major themes of the last half of 20th century, from sports and the role of sports in society to the role of Black athletes, and race, and politics, and war, and faith, and religion, all of which are relevant today.”

The roots of the project stretch back to 2013. Biographer Jonathan Eig, who’d previously appeared in Burns’ documentaries about prohibition and Jackie Robinson, was working on a biography of Ali and noted to McMahon and Sarah Burns that there wasn’t a single, all-encompassing film about the boxing legend. In fact, despite Ali being one of the most closely examined characters in modern history, prior documentaries have tended to focus on specific parts of his life or even individual fights, like the Oscar-winning “When We Were Kings” about Ali’s 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” upset of George Foreman.

The filmmaking trio, which previously collaborated on the two-part Robinson doc in 2016 and a 2012 project about the Central Park Five, immediately jumped at the opportunity to address such an expansive subject, with Sarah Burns and McMahon writing the script in addition to directing and producing. Eig, who published “Ali: A Life” in 2017, was a consulting producer on the film. The filmmakers began working in earnest on the project in 2014 and quickly found that they’d have far more material than they could ever use, even after expanding their initial plans for a three-part series.

“We ended up interviewing 40 people. We gathered over the course of the production and coded into our system over 1,500 photographs, but looked at many more. And we pulled in something like 500 hours of film,” said McMahon. “He has to be among the most well-documented figures of the 20th century. There’s a staggering amount of material, it’s just astonishing. There’s so much of him on camera that we can really make him the main character through his own voice.”

Ali’s upset of George Foreman in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle was the basis for an Oscar-winning documentary in 1996.Getty Images

That turned out to be necessary because the filmmakers had no direct access to Ali, who was in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s by the time they’d begun production and who died a week before they began filming. But according to Ken Burns, the wide array of interview subjects still allowed them to paint a dense, complicated portrait of the loquacious heavyweight.

“We’ve been told by even our scholars, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that picture, I’ve never seen that footage, I didn’t know that bit of information. How did you get to that person?’ Because we have a lot of different people,” said Burns. “Journalists who were young cub reporters like Robert Lipsyte, and Dave Kindred and Jerry Izenberg; poets like Quincy Troupe and Wole Soyinka; and writers like David Remnick and Walter Mosley.” Others appearing in the film include two of Ali’s wives; his daughters Hana and Rasheda; his brother Rahman; NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; boxing promoters Don King and Bob Arum; and former heavyweight champion and opponent Larry Holmes.

Filming was all but completed by the time COVID began shutting down productions across the country, but the dozen or so staffers were forced to edit the film remotely throughout most of 2020. “Everybody so quickly pivoted to this new paradigm of how you do this, and it was extra work for everybody to shift gears,” said Sarah Burns. “That we didn’t get to be in the same room together while doing that was a bummer for everyone, but the work continued and was actually pretty seamless.”

The production cycle was lengthy by industry standards, if not unusual for the scope of films that Ken Burns and his teams typically pursue. He also credits PBS, with which he’s long maintained an exclusive partnership, for allowing so much freedom. “We knew we would be able to spend the amount of time that only PBS — because one foot is tentatively in the marketplace and the other proudly out of it — would have permitted us to have,” said Burns. “The long time necessary to find the footage that people don’t have the time to find, to find the photographs that people don’t have the time to find. That’s what we did across every aspect of his life.”

Another benefit to working with PBS is a wide reach that’s increasingly vital at a time when there’s never been more competition for viewer attention. “PBS is free,” said Sarah Burns. “Anyone can watch PBS in the United States, and that is a really wonderful thing.”

The film will be Burns’ last about a sports subject for at least several years. He and his four producing teams have a full slate running into 2027 that includes projects on Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci and the Great Society reform policy of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Like those other historic figures, Ali shook up the world.

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