Ken Burns on 'Muhammad Ali,' his new 4-part documentary on the life of the late boxing legend

Ken Burns on 'Muhammad Ali,' his new 4-part documentary on the life of the late boxing legend
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Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali in March 1964. AP Photo
  • Ken Burns spoke to Insider about the making of "Muhammad Ali," his new biographical documentary on the late boxing legend.

  • In a wide-ranging interview, Burns also discussed the documentary in relation to his filmography and coming projects.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Earlier this month, I spoke to Ken Burns about the making of his new four-part documentary on the life of Muhammad Ali.

An eight-hour series that premieres Sunday on PBS, "Muhammad Ali" tracks the late boxing legend's upbringing and divisive rise to become, in Burns' words, "the greatest athlete of the 20th century," who "dies the most beloved person on the planet."

Seven years in the making, "Ali" is Burns' fourth collaboration with Sarah Burns and David McMahon, his daughter and son-in-law, who co-directed the documentary with him and wrote its script.

Burns took the phone call for our interview from a barn on his property in Walpole, New Hampshire, that has served as his office and production studio in recent years. Among the insights he gave into the production and approach to "Ali," Burns said the process of forging a comprehensive filmic biography of the boxer involved his team culling 500 hours worth of material into eight hours.

In the wide-ranging interview, the legendary documentarian also discussed "Ali" in relation to his 40-year filmography and coming projects, the throughline of race as a subject in his work, and his varied efforts to counter what he called "the bankrupt notion that American history is just a sequence of presidential administrations, punctuated by wars."

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I've gotta thank you for this documentary here. It's tremendous.

I'm so glad you like it.

One of the great sports documentaries I've seen. Also, the "Jazz" documentary got me through a particularly bleak period of COVID-imposed isolation, so I have to thank you for that as well.

Oh, I'm so glad. Louis Armstrong can lift the spirits of any situation.

Indeed.

I always thought that if I could do a dinner, I would pick Muhammad Ali and Louis Armstrong to come.

Yeah [laughs]. It was a joy to watch, as was the Ali documentary. So, this was a seven-year production. How arduous would you say the production of this was relative to say a "Jazz" or a "Baseball"?

Well, I think the "Jazz" and "Baseball," by virtue of their longer length, would be more arduous, but it's not like that. We're engaged in process. And process means, in this business, that you are dealing with literally millions of problems for every film. If you look at problems pejoratively, then you don't get anywhere. Nothing gets done. But if you see them as a kind of inevitable friction about how you tell a story well, then you welcome all of these things. And that's why I've spent my entire professional life with PBS, because they're the ones who have one foot tentatively in the marketplace and the other proudly out of it, which means that, though I spend way too much of my time fundraising, the places where I could go and get funding instantaneously wouldn't give me the 10 and a half years it took to do "The Vietnam War." Wouldn't give me the six and a half years it took to do "Jazz." Wouldn't have given us the seven years to do "Ali."

So, it's not about arduous. It's just about engaging a process of storytelling. And you would be, as an outsider in that process, reasonable to assume that this is an additive process. Like architecture, you're building the house, right? It is, in fact, architecture only if you bring to the building site 50 or 60 times the building material that you need. So our work is subtractive. We have an eight hour film, but we have 500 hours of material, interviews, extra script stuff, thousands of photographs, hundreds of hours of footage, which we have to digest. And you can't do that quickly without just returning to kind of a superficial portrait of Muhammad Ali. So he's either full of bluster and reciting poetry and predicting the rounds that people are going down in, which is very appealing and wonderful, or he's silent and encased in Parkinson's. When, in fact, as you saw, it's much more nuanced and complex. You might be forced to just say, "So he joins the Nation of Islam, which was considered a hate group," but you see that this is the story as much about a spiritual journey as it is about a boxer, right? You got to know his birth and early life in segregated Jim Crow Louisville as a formative force in who he becomes. So, this takes time. And so, our middle name might be arduous..

[Laughs].

That is to say, we bite off more than we can chew, and then learn how to chew it. You know what I mean?

ken burns, sarah burns, david mcmahon
David McMahon, Sarah Burns, and Ken Burns. Getty Images

Definitely. This is your fourth collaboration with Sarah Burns, your daughter, and David McMahon. Two of them..

My son-in-law.

Your son-in-law.. "Central Park Five" and "Jackie Robinson," similarly, transformative racial figures and events. What has made Sarah and David the ideal collaborators for those films and "Ali"?

Well, let me just back up and say that all of my professional life, well before Sarah and Dave entered the scene as collaborators, my beat has been American history, which means that my beat inevitably includes race, right? Because that's, in many ways, the central story of it. Historians say it's our original sin; that is to say, that we proclaimed that all men were created equal, but the guy who wrote that sentence owned several hundred human beings, and didn't see the hypocrisy in that, and set in motion an American narrative that, if you're interested in doing a deeper dive, as I've just described in answer to your first question, you inevitably bump into it. And it's not segregated in any way. It's totally integrated into the fabric of American life. Good - and it's really important, and thank you for saying what you said about "Jazz"; there's a really good example - and bad, obviously, as we deal in many films, with discrimination and segregation and racism, and it comes up.

They are ideal because I think we share a similar outlook on it. But I've also been dealing with this question of race with my principal collaborator for the last 40 years, Geoffrey C. Ward, who's written the scripts for "Huey Long" and "Civil War" and "Baseball" and "Jazz." And "World War I" and "Prohibition" and "The Roosevelts" and "Vietnam." And most recently, "Ernest Hemingway." I have four different producing teams, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the films that don't end up taking up race as a significant part. Or, in the case of films like "Jack Johnson," the first African-American heavyweight, or "Jackie Robinson" or "Central Park Five" or this film, "Muhammad Ali," are directly and obviously about race because the main characters are Black Americans.

But, to me.. you know, Martin Luther King said this wonderful thing. He said, "All life is interrelated. All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." He basically described how we treat our work. We're not going to segregate these stories. We're not going to isolate them to February, our coldest and shortest month. We're going to fully integrate them into the fabric of the American story, and be drawn to the fact that people like Muhammad Ali and Louis Armstrong and Jackie Robinson and Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells and Harriet Tubman are in many ways the perfect exemplars of Americans, the way Abraham Lincoln and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt might be. So, we're not looking for it, but we are drawn to compelling stories. And my goodness, you've just seen eight hours on Muhammad Ali. Is there anybody more compelling, more complex, more interesting, more American than him?

Not that I can think of. [Laughs].

AP_28382085341
Ali vs. Liston II in May 1965. AP Photo/John Rooney

Yeah [laughs]. It's just, to me.. You know, I grew up with him. I mean, my dad was telling me about him, about the '60 Olympics in Rome. And obviously by Sonny Liston in '64, I'm fully engaged in it. I'm 11 years old, or about to be 11 that year. Then I followed him all the way through, and because my dad and I were both opposed to the Vietnam War, he became a hero. And I thought I knew something. Every day of this for years and years was a revelation of things. And remember, Sarah and Dave are co-directors, but they also wrote the script. So, to me it was just, for all of us, flabbergasting to get such extraordinary material. And also to be able to collaborate once again with my daughter and son-in-law.. You know, it's really great. There's no yelling. We make decisions, and we make hard decisions and face those problems not as problems, but in a kind of positive way. Friction to be overcome.

Yeah.. what would you say was a particularly revelatory finding for you that perhaps hadn't been known to you or the public widely?

Well, I think the idea they said at the beginning, that he's either full of bombast in the early days, you know, the braggadocio, in which he's challenging the assumptions of how athletes and particularly Black athletes are supposed to behave. And so, a lot of opprobrium comes his way because of his attitude, which is really just, "Black is beautiful. I'm Black, I'm beautiful." It's like Jesse Jackson's "I am somebody." He had a variation of that mantra for everybody. But I think it's these moments of wisdom in between. The moment after the Liston fight, when he says, you know, "I don't have to be what you want me to be. I can be what I want to be." As Robert Lipsyte, the young reporter at the time said to us on film, "We'd never heard anything like this. This was an athletic declaration of independence," and that's amazing.

Then, you know, later on, when he's talking about maybe giving up boxing. Somebody says, "Give up boxing? Never fight again?" And he goes, "Yeah." He says, "I know I'm here for a purpose." This is in episode one, and you see in episode four, Rasheda, his daughter, pinches her fingers together and says, "Boxing was only this much, a small part, like he could have done other things. He had great purpose and momentum in his life." That's a wonderful, wonderful thing. One of my most favorite moments in the film is after the Supreme court, on a technicality, allows him to escape the five-year jail sentence. And it's a perfect time for Muhammad Ali to dance, to gloat, to do a poem. He doesn't. Somebody sticks a microphone in his face and says, "What do you think about the system?" And he goes, "Well, I don't know who's going to be assassinated tonight. I don't know who's going to be denied justice and equality." And he goes on for a while. He said, "Yeah, this was a good thing for me." But it seemed that here is this man in his twenties, still a young person, reflecting back across the whole history of 350 years of the mistreatment of Black Americans on this continent, you know, back past Emmett Till and his mutilated, tortured body that his mother had the courage to show to the world. And he saw it, not much difference in age from Muhammad Ali. His father's anger at not being able to be fully a person in segregated Louisville and to pursue his talent as a painter, he becomes just a sign painter, and the anger and rage in his father - all the way back to 1619.

But he also seems to be looking ahead and saying, "I wonder what's going to happen." So, as I look at it, I think of Rodney King, and I think of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, a little 12 year old kid with a toy gun dead in Cleveland, or Breonna Taylor, or of course George Floyd, and think, how does this man realize this in addition to being the greatest athlete of the 20th century? And I think arguably of all time. You know, one of these great apostles of love, who, with all the interesting contradictions and undertow of his life, happens to join a group which is separatist and has been labeled a hate group and is responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X, once a member and once a friend. So you've got all of these wonderful contradictions. You know, I made a film on Thomas Jefferson that is also about race, as you can imagine, but taken from a different way. And the thing is, the tendency in our media culture is to just throw somebody out if you find out something bad, or if you've presumed that somebody is perfect and they're in. And there's nobody like that. Everybody's got a shadow. And good storytelling is like good mythology, and I don't mean in lies. I mean like Greek mythology, where you just have great stories to tell, and you have to include Achilles heel and his hubris to accompany his great strength. Otherwise you don't really have a great story. Right? And in this case, this guy with all the flaws, dies the most beloved person on his planet, which isn't a bad thing for anybody to do. You know, our last film was on Ernest Hemingway, and he dies alone from a self-inflicted shotgun blast - don't do this at home - at age 60. One of the great, if not the greatest American writer of the 20th century, also with four wives and lots of problems and undertow. And this man lives to just five years ago; Ali passed away in 2016. This is not that long ago. It's within our kind of recent memory, and how central he is, to who we are.

David Remnick says it really great at the opening of the film, that he's revered like a Buddha, but people forget how divisive he was at the beginning. And then at the end, when [Ali's] lighting the torch, [Remnick] goes, "Maybe people are capable of change," that people were able to let go of the false baggage and hatred for him. And a lot of that had to do with his courage and his insistence on freedom. He intersects with lots of things, sports, the role of the athlete in society, obviously the role of the Black athlete, race, politics, war, faith, religion - all of those things intersect with his life, the major themes of the last half of the 20th century, and things that are still with us today. But at the end, it's about freedom, and it's about courage. And he displays those in spectacular fashion that oughta make him.. I think his life story holds up a mirror and asks us to gulp and take in the full measure of ourselves, both as a country, but also as an individual. And that's a great gift. I didn't mean to go on so long. I'm sorry.

No.. that's what I'm on the phone for. [Laughs].. Another aspect of Ali that I find fascinating is the notion of him as sort of a "proto-rapper." You happened to work with Jahlil Beats on this documentary, set fight footage to his production anachronistically, which is a departure from how you would tend to use the music of the time to illustrate something. What inspired that collaboration?

I was introduced by a friend, a mutual friend of both to Jahlil, and then Sarah and Dave worked with him a great deal. And normally, yes. We tend to be chronological in our film. As we move through "Baseball," it begins in the folk and hymns and popular music of the 19th century, through ragtime and then jazz, and then more jazz and swing and bebop and, you know, whatever, and then country and rock, and all of these other things come in, and that's pretty great. But we also find in every one of the films, including "Baseball," but also this one, that as we proceed and use music historically accurate, we also are liberated by the power of music, "the art of the invisible," Wynton Marsalis calls it, that permits us to use it.

I mean, there's Philip Glass pieces in the middle of boxing matches as well as Jahlil Beats. And we love that liberation. And the fact that.. your first phrase of your question hits the nail on the head. I'm not going to go and say he's a proto-rapper. He's interested in a kind of verbal rhythm that matches his physical rhythm. And it seemed to us appropriate. And of course the only law of editing is what works, works, you know? That we would have something like that, even early on where it was out of historical context, but perfect for how we expressed what he was saying and doing in the ring, saying outside the ring and doing in the ring. And sometimes [laughs], as you notice, he's also saying things in the ring.

Yeah, right. "What's my name?"

Yeah. "What's my name? What's my name? Say my name. What's my name?"

Well.. stepping back on your filmography here, there's a trend toward more sport documentaries, and focus on sport as a subject. What do you find in the process of making a documentary about sports figures or events.. What.. how does.. how do those differ from say a war or more solemn subjects?

Well.. they don't differ. You know, storytelling is storytelling, and good storytelling is good storytelling, and bad storytelling gets you into problems. You know, if you look at it.. I don't know how many films there are. [Laughs]. Somebody asked me the other day. And I said, "I just don't know." It's over 30. It's not 40. Right? But you've got "Baseball" and you've got "Jack Johnson" and you've got "Jackie Robinson," and you've got "Muhammad Ali." So that is four out of, let's say 34, right? So, the predominance is not that, but I have early on rejected, I think, the bankrupt notion that American history is just a sequence of presidential administrations, punctuated by wars. I've covered a lot of presidents. I've covered a lot of wars. We've done The Civil War. We did World War II in a series called "The War." We did The Vietnam War. We're now working on The American Revolution, an incredibly tough subject, because there's no photographs and no footage, obviously. It's just looking for.. you know, we don't have marketing groups behind us. We're just looking for the kind of stories that hit you in your gut. There's thousands of them. If I were given a thousand years, I wouldn't run out of topics in American history, but I'm not going to be given it. So I'm sort of greedy for those, the creative process.

And so, we've got eight films going, and four different teams. Sarah and Dave are one, and we've got two films, Sarah and Dave and I, up ahead. One of them is about Leonardo da Vinci, our first non-American topic. So, it's not going to be about race so much. But the other one is a big history called "From Emancipation to Exodus," from the Emancipation Proclamation to the beginning of The Great Migration and near the end of the second decade of the 20th century, that goes on for six decades. So it's a big, huge project that will revisit some themes that are in "Baseball" and "Jazz" and many, many other things about Reconstruction and post-Civil War life and Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan and Confederate monuments. And, you know, what's the real Confederate flag versus the Ku Klux Klan favorite flag that is in use today? It's just endlessly interesting and complicated, and that's what we look for. It's really just the gut decision, "I have to tell this story." And it's not driven by any kind of, "Oh, this will be successful." We're on public broadcasting, right? [Laughs]. Where we reach tens of millions of people, I'm very happy to say, but this is not to have the mansion. I've lived in the same house for 42 years last week in New Hampshire, which I moved to 42 years ago last week, because I presumed I'd taken a vow of anonymity and poverty, and that was okay, so I can keep my overhead low, and it's still low. And we can try to make films in their own time and spend whatever it takes, 10 and a half years as "Vietnam" took to make it, and to try to do it right. And it still remains, you know, a really comprehensive and powerful film four years afterwards. It hasn't been kind of supplanted by new information.

We had cutting-edge information that took us.. I'm in a barn where we work. And it took us working with 23 or 24 advisors who were the experts. Somebody was on presidential tapes. Somebody knew about declassified Vietnamese military records. Somebody knew about the south Vietnamese diaspora in the United States. Somebody knew about the history of the diplomacy.. you know, like that. And each one of the other advisors was looking at each other and going, "Wow, I didn't know that." And we suddenly went, "Wow, we're putting together all the disparate parts of which even scholars didn't know aspects of other scholarship." And so for awhile, and I don't know how long, our "Vietnam War" series, 18 hours, is probably one-stop shopping for understanding what happened and being sort of the gathering gather of the most recent scholarship.

A last question here, while I have you, on the topic of Vietnam. I believe you were in Ann Arbor, site of the counterculture in the Midwest, uh, at the time of, the uh..

Yep.

.. the draft inductions. What was the perception of Ali's refusal of his draft induction at the time, and how has your perception of it changed in documenting it?

Uh, nothing's changed from that angle. I mean, I think he had.. it was, "three strikes and you're out," right? The first, as I discussed, was the bragging. Strike one. "That's not the way an athlete, and more importantly, a Black athlete - hint, hint, stay in your place - uh, should behave." Second strike was he announces after he beats Liston that he's been a member and is fully a member of the Nation of Islam, which has already been in the mainstream media labeled a hate group, right? Strike two. Strike three is refusing induction. And that caused the main divisiveness against him. All that time, you've gotta remember that people loved him being the way he was, and people loved him for making a choice. And we've got a constitution that permits a man to worship God the way he wants. So his choice of the Nation of Islam is his business, I suppose. And we're not gonna ignore his darker recesses. But we also see who his character is. As his own Louisville sponsorship group guy says, "If they're a hate group, then he can't be a member, because there's not a bone of hate in him," right? So that's a pretty amazing revelation from a white Christian Kentucky conservative businessman, who with 10 other guys had put up their money to help support him and keep him from the mob.

So, you know, there's good stuff. My dad and I.. My dad, then me following him, was against the war in Vietnam. The first teach-in occurred not at Berkeley, but in Ann Arbor in March of '65. And it was about the Vietnam War, and the fact that we just put boots on the ground there, meaning no longer quote "military" advisors, which had grown to nearly 20,000, if not 20,000, by then, but these were real combat troops on the ground. He was refusing induction, and he got reclassified because the war wasn't going well. He had been deemed unable to serve, not mentally capable to serve. And then they lowered the standards and he was. And he made a faith-based decision, which, because he was a Black man in the middle of the '60s was treated as a political decision. And so, we were for it. And, you know, we don't comment in our films one way or the other. We have people saying things, a variety of things, and people acknowledging how many people didn't like him, including Black Americans. But also you hear from three Black soldiers who say, "Hey, this is why I'm here. I'm fighting for his right to worship what he wants and to believe what he believes," right? And I think he's sincere in that belief.

So yeah, it's a complicated story. And that's why he's at that intersection of so many of the issues that we still face today. We're debating Afghanistan. All of the echoes of Vietnam come sort of pouring over the transom, not just in the obvious images of Chinook helicopters taking people away, or crowded airports descending into chaos as the cargo planes are trying to get away. It's more just what it means to go to the other side of the world and fight for something that's not really articulated, or be there too long because somebody is making a lot of money supplying the troops, you know? And Muhammad Ali somehow understood a good deal of these dynamics. And when he's kicked out as a result of his conviction and earlier, just because of his belief and his refusal, loses his license, and then is sentenced to jail, he goes out on the lecture circuit. And I think he becomes somebody who endears that generation where I was - I was little bit younger than that, but of the college students; I was just an elementary school kid - but it was my dad's students, and things like that. He just became a huge hero to that and remains so. So, the thing that changed in this is I did not realize how much I loved him and how much, more importantly, how much he was about love. This is a four-letter word the FCC let's me talk about.

[Laughs].

But it's really hard for people to talk about it. Actually. It's embarrassing, and people gulp and go, "Yup." And nobody, whenever I say this, nobody ever asks me a follow-up question about love. But that's the actual mechanics of the universe. It's basically, if you wanted to reduce all of my stuff beyond, they're all about the United States so far, it's that they're about love. It's about how you transcend. It's the better angels of our nature that Abraham Lincoln is talking about. It's about Louis Armstrong's trumpet, you know? It's about Harriet Tubman's sacrifice. It's Frederick Douglas. It's Franklin Roosevelt crippled by polio as an adult, infantile paralysis it's called, that he gets it in his late 30s and is able to lift us out of the Depression and through the second world war. I mean, these are just great stuff that I'm happy that I don't have to make it up.

George Foreman and Muhammad Ali
George Foreman and Muhammad Ali during "The Rumble in the Jungle" in October 1974. Ken Regan /Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

Set laws of storytelling apply to fiction people, but they make stuff up. I don't have to make anything up. It's all there. And it's beyond belief. I mean, just take the boxing part of it. That Liston fight alone goes through so many chapters. "The Thrilla in Manila," the third Joe Frazier fight, is just stunning. I mean, the closest to death he said he'd ever been. And of course, the masterpiece of all masterpieces is the fight with Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, in '74, which is still, you just look at it.. this is the guy that his own corner, his own friends were worried that he'd be killed in. He destroyed Foreman. Nobody was betting on him. He was the favorite sentimentally, but not among the oddsmakers, not among his friends who were certain he would get killed.

And not only that, he just invented his own new thing to deal with George Foreman, the rope-a-dope, and his corner is screaming at him, "Get off the ropes! Get off the ropes!" And he finally just says, "I know what I'm doing," you know, "Shut up." And he did. And I'm glad they all shut up because it's a masterpiece, just that alone. It makes it worth the price of admission. Wouldn't you agree? And then you learn about the family and the boyhood and the joie de vivre, and how he got into boxing, and the wives and the complications and the infidelity and the Nation of Islam, and the politics and the Supreme Court. You go, "Man, this was some life."

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