In his long and successful career as a historian, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has told stories about the United States, examining the glories promised by our democracy and the parallel realities of racism, sexism, poverty and politics that have always been part of the American story.
Burns and his collaborators have built a well-deserved reputation for making American history come alive, and for honoring the complexity of the exceptional people whose experiences both reflect and define the country.
In the new documentary film, “Muhammad Ali,” Burns and his co-directors, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon, have an ideal subject. As with previous Burns projects that focused on individuals, including “Jackie Robinson,” “Hemingway,” and “The Roosevelts,” “Muhammad Ali” celebrates what was extraordinary and singular about its central character and illustrates that, while his life was impacted by cultural change, Ali also helped to drive that change.
Maybe it’s fitting that the sort of social upheaval chronicled in “Muhammad Ali” has recently come into play in terms of how Burns is viewed, and raised questions about whether it’s appropriate to have white filmmakers telling the story of Ali, a Black man whose life and boxing career became closely intertwined with evolving definitions of African American identity.
These issues arose during a Zoom discussion of “Muhammad Ali,” which happened in August as part of the virtual Television Critics Association summer press tour.
Burns has already addressed the controversy that emerged earlier this year, when a group of filmmakers wrote an open letter calling out PBS for devoting so much attention and so many hours of airtime to Burns’ projects.
The letter asked, “How many other ‘independent’ filmmakers have a decades-long relationship with a publicly-funded entity?,” and went on to say, “Public television supporting this level of uninvestigated privilege is troubling not just for us as filmmakers but as tax-paying Americans…This is about equitable support for BIPOC filmmakers to author their own narratives at all stages of their careers that rival the access and support seen by their white peers.”
In the discussion of “Muhammad Ali,” a reporter asked Burns what he made of criticisms that perhaps it would have been better to have a Black filmmaker leading the documentary project.
“We have never said that this was definitive,” said Burns, who had earlier acknowledged that “there are lots of really good films on Muhammad Ali.”
“I think the point is that we want to have many, many points of view,” Burns said.
Speaking from a personal perspective, Burns said, “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. We do that with teams of producers, editors and advisors who are diverse, and the people in our films, as you have seen, from all backgrounds, speak to their personal experiences, and as experts.”
Burns went on to say, “We, of course, encourage others to tell their own stories, and we celebrate that. But 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.”
Watching “Muhammad Ali,” the skills that Burns and his team bring to the task are readily apparent. With customary elegance, the film uses a treasure chest of archival footage and photographs of Ali, as the film chronicles his life from growing up in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, a spirited child with a big personality, to his early triumphs in the boxing ring.
Ali’s wit, pride and innate love of showmanship provides ample film evidence of how, in this first flush of fame, the boxer became a celebrity. Handsome, charismatic and confident, the young Ali was larger-than-life, proclaiming, “I am the Greatest,” issuing rhyming predictions about fights, and taunting his opponents.
Still going by his birth name, Cassius Clay, the athlete earned a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. An underdog going into a title fight with Sonny Liston in 1963, Ali triumphed and emerged as the heavyweight champion, at age 22.
Not long after the first fight with Liston, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, a testament to his Muslim faith and his connection with what was then known as the Nation of Islam.
Ali’s devotion to the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, and Muhammad’s Black separatist beliefs, made the boxer a polarizing figure for many Americans. Some saw Ali as a threat, others admired his outspokenness about racism, and his refusal to conform to prevailing ideas about Black masculinity.
The film is expertly narrated by Keith David, and it does a fine job of showing how Ali’s life intersected with struggles for civil rights and growing social movements, and how Ali’s choices came from his convictions, for good and ill. For example, Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X cooled after the Black leader came into conflict with Elijah Muhammad, a choice Ali later said he regretted.
But in one of the most meaningful actions of his life, Ali risked going to jail for his refusal to submit to the draft during the Vietnam War. Claiming his Muslim faith forbade him from fighting in the war, Ali was condemned by some as unpatriotic, and praised by antiwar activists.
Though a generally favorable portrait, “Muhammad Ali” does acknowledge some of its subjects’ flaws, including cheating on his wives and using cruel, racially stereotypical language to insult fellow fighters, notably Joe Frazier. At close to eight hours over four parts, the film at times feels overly long, with considerable time and attention is paid to Ali’s boxing matches.
The final chapter feels both truncated and sad, as it includes scenes of Ali still boxing, when his health was already declining. Seeing him absorb blow after blow – when we know he was later diagnosed with, and ultimately died from Parkinson’s Syndrome – is difficult to watch.
But overall, the documentary makes abundantly clear why Ali became the most famous man in the world, and why, when he died in 2016, he was widely loved.
As Burns said during the TV press tour virtual discussion of “Muhammad Ali,” he has tried in his films “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, yet the guy who wrote that owned other human beings, and didn’t see the contradiction of the controversy. That’s our work. And we look forward to all the stories that can be told.”
“Muhammad Ali” premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19 on PBS; it continues with subsequent episodes at 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 20, Tuesday, Sept. 21, and Wednesday, Sept. 22.
— Kristi Turnquist
firstname.lastname@example.org 503-221-8227 @Kristiturnquist
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