For legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, profiling Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest athlete of all-time, provided unique challenges and took seven years to complete. Among the most difficult was how Burns, his daughter Sarah, and son-in-law David McMahon could produce an all-encompassing documentary about not just Ali’s boxing career, but also his political activism, religious journey, and personal life.
“This is a seven-year labor of love and what we wanted to do,” Burns said about his upcoming four-part PBS documentary series “Muhamad Ali,” which premieres September 19. “We wanted to do soup-to-nuts from his birth and boyhood in Jim Crow segregated Louisville, Kentucky, to his death only five years ago from Parkinson’s Disease.”
Burns spoke with CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett for this week’s episode of “The Takeout” podcast.
Ali, a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, relied on his unique boxing style and famous rhyming threats — “I’m gonna float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see” — to awe the sports world. He won Olympic gold at 18 — just three months out of high school.
The first time Ali won the title, over Sonny Liston in 1964, it was under his given name, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. He was 22, the youngest title holder in history. Shortly thereafter, Ali changed his name to Muhammad Ali, the name given to him by the Chicago-based leader of the Nation of Islam and Ali’s spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad.
“I think he may be the greatest athlete of all time,” Burns said. “I think if Michelangelo was around today and about to sculpt David, he’d go, ‘Maybe I should do Muhammad Ali.’ Just a beautiful human specimen who’s also funny, who’s gregarious, who’s difficult, who’s you know, passionate about life and is an inspiration to this day for people concerned about social justice.”
Born Cassius Clay, the boxer became Muslim in 1961, joined the Nation of Islam and later changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Burns said his film is about Ali’s journey for freedom and his fight for creating his own identity.
“It’s interesting — as he announces the name change, nobody will accept it.” Burns said, adding that some in the media, fellow boxers, and the public continued to call him Cassius Clay. “People change their names; this is what happens. And [society] wouldn’t accept it because it’s a black man sort of doing that.”
When Ali refused to join the U.S. Army after being drafted for the Vietnam War, saying he was a conscientious objector and that fighting was against his religion, he was arrested and stripped of both his boxing license and heavyweight title. He was forced out of the boxing ring for three years until the Supreme Court overturned his draft evasion conviction.
“He intersects with all of the issues of the last half of the 20th century,” Burns said about why it was so important to document the entirety of Ali’s life. “It’s the role of sports in society, it’s the role of Black athletes in sports, it’s the nature of Black masculinity and manhood. It’s about the civil rights movement, not as a monolithic one thing, but as many different tugs and pulls of various factions and interests. It’s about politics, it’s about war, it’s about sex, it’s about faith, it’s about religion, it’s about Islam, it’s about all these things and all these things that we’re dealing with today.”
Ali’s fights after returning to the ring were often global media events with huge ticket sales and massive closed-circuit audiences packed into movie theaters. Among the marquee bouts: three against Joe Frazier, one against George Foreman and two against Leon Spinks. Ali won the heavyweight title a second time in an upset over Foreman in 1974. He lost the title in 1978 to Spinks, an unheralded challenger. Seven months later, Ali fought Spinks again and regained the title for a record-setting third time.
Burns also talked about his filmmaking process and how every documentary he has made contains limitations and unique challenges.
“Every film is a million problems… if you see them pejoratively, you’re lost,” Burns said. “But if you see them as something, friction to overcome, they just become irritations like in an oyster that eventually become a pearl. And you hope and we trust that when the films are done, they’re pearls.”
Burns on the challenges of filmmaking: “Every film has a million problems… if you see them pejoratively, you’re lost. But if you see them as something, friction to overcome, they just become irritations like in an oyster that eventually become a pearl. And you hope and we trust that that when the films are done, they’re pearls.”
On Ali’s stance during the civil rights movement and how he tried to capture that in his series: “Each and every one of us is an individual person. So the civil rights movement has as many sort of views as there are people involved in it or even people reacting to it in some way. And so we, in this story, it touches on many of those dynamics. And it’s not it’s not something that’s fixed. It’s fluid. It’s like his faith is fluid, and he grows more and more expansive.”
On Ali’s bravado as a boxer and entertainer: “Nobody was as good at promoting as he was. And he knew just the right word to say how to get under his opponent’s skin, how to frame every single fight as a kind of drama with him as the lead… the fights were like the collected works of William Shakespeare. He made himself the lead character. He made himself Hamlet or Macbeth, or whatever, you know, King Lear in whatever of the fights he did. And he did it with a genius that we just still shake our heads that nobody can do that today. Nobody understands that.”
On Ali’s legacy: “He intersects with all of the issues of the last half of the 20th century. It’s the role of sports in society, it’s the role of black athletes in sports, it’s the nature of black masculinity and manhood. It’s about the civil rights movement, not as a monolithic one thing, but as many different tugs and pulls of various factions and interests. It’s about politics, it’s about war, it’s about sex, it’s about faith, it’s about religion, it’s about Islam, it’s about all these things and all these things that we’re dealing with today.”
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