Ken Burns On Exploring The Nuance Of Muhammad Ali’s Hero Story

“You can’t make this up,” Ken Burns says more than once as we discuss the life of Muhammad Ali, the subject of his new eponymous 4-part docuseries, which you can now stream on PBS’ site. As with projects centered around Jackie Robinson and The Central Park Five, the Ali series is co-directed by Burns’ daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon. It’s also exhaustive, with Burns estimating that they accumulated approximately 50 times the 8 hours of material that they wound up using in the finished product. And that’s the great appeal of yet another doc on a man who is arguably the 20th century’s most fascinating, outspoken, and documented person: the promise that we might better understand his journey and the waypoints of his life that so inform our memory of him as a hero, as a fighter in and out of the ring. We spoke with Burns about that pursuit, the basis of how and why he chooses his projects, his relationship with PBS, and whether he might go back to expand on one of his most famous past works.

I thought I knew the story of Ali and this really just exploded that notion for me.

I think that’s how it is, we live in a world in which this tsunami of information makes it so hard for us to have anything but retained conventional wisdom, which is superficial. The presumptions we have about a story are almost like the baggage we carry. It’s always been our want, in the midst of that, to swim upstream against it. And with this case, there are so many good documentaries on Muhammad Ali, often about a single fight or a couple of years, a series of fights, or a struggle with the United States government. But we really wanted to do something comprehensive. From birth and boyhood in Jim Crow segregated Louisville, Kentucky to death by Parkinson’s not that many years ago.

How did this change or enhance your understanding of your notions [about Ali]?

As is always the case, in all of the films I’ve worked on, with all of the various collaborators I’ve had the pleasure to work with, you come in with a certain set of baggage. Preconceptions, I guess, is the best way to put it. And then you lose that baggage. And it doesn’t matter. I’m not missing any of it, because every day that you work on it, you are diving deeper and deeper.

Remember, the process of making a film is not additive; it’s subtractive. So we have four parts, eight hours on Muhammad Ali here, but we’ve collected 50 times that amount of material. The deep dive that we’ve done is not even fully reflected in the film that we’ve made, which we think explodes a lot of that conventional wisdom. And that’s not why we do it. We just want to tell a good story. And we know that a good story is complicated, that heroes aren’t perfect, that heroes have flaws. And that it’s, in fact, interesting to watch the war between the hero’s strengths and their weaknesses. That defines them. This is a classic American hero’s journey. We just happen to be dealing with one of the most compelling, funny, interesting, outrageous, revolutionary human beings to come along in all of American history.

Are there any specifics that enhance your awe for Ali?

No, every day was a discovery and awe isn’t the word I choose, because awe suggests a kind of blind idolatry. I love him, I adulate him. But I like the complexity of it. I like getting to know someone. This is a story about faith, as much as it is the story about a boxer. This is a story about a family, as much as it is a story about the greatest boxer of all times. This is about race and politics and religion and sports in American life, as much as it is about a specific human being. And that specific human being dies the most beloved person on the planet. And yet most people forget just how divisive he was; first by being a kind of loud-mouthed, braggadocious guy, who in the middle of that has unbelievable moments of self-reflection and wisdom that belie his young age of 19, 20, 21. We were able to find and include that.

His first strike is people said, “Let’s shut him up. I hope Liston beats him and makes it impossible for him to speak.” He doesn’t. And then the second strike is he announces that he’s a member of The Nation Of Islam, this separatist religious cult that has nothing really to do with Islam, but has offered him a kind of beginning of a legitimate spiritual quest and journey. And strike three is, of course, because of his religious beliefs, he refuses induction into the draft that would take him to Vietnam. And because he is a Black man in America, people refused to see this as a faith-based decision, but one that’s political and therefore he becomes hugely divisive.

And the reason why I’m avoiding the any one thing , and I will get to that, is as you explore every aspect of this story. there’s a complex dynamic and you just want to make sure that it isn’t just all bad or all good, but some strange balance. And that’s why it takes seven years to do it. And why we’re distilling down from 50 times eight hours into the eight hours that we have here.

But there’s a moment when the Supreme Court vindicates him or vacates his conviction and his five-year sentence to go to prison on a technicality. A microphone is stuck in his face and he has every opportunity to be the superficial, conventional view we have of Muhammad Ali back then. As a braggart and, “Yes, I’m totally vindicated,” and this and that. And someone asks him about what he thinks about the system and he says, “I don’t know who’s going to be assassinated tonight. I don’t know who is going to be denied equality or injustice.” And he’s ranging back. This still young kid is ranging back across 350 years of ill-treatment of Black people on this continent. He’s thinking about Emmett Till who was kidnapped and tortured and mutilated and murdered. And whose open casket his mother had the bravery to show and allowed pictures to be taken so that someone like Cassius Clay, at that age, almost the same age as Emmett Till, could understand it.

Then, of course, he’s also referring to stuff that’s going to happen, that none of us could possibly know then what the names are…of Rodney King, of Trayvon Martin, of Tamir Rice, of Breonna Taylor, of George Floyd. He knows that this is coming and in a moment of triumph, he said, “Yeah, it’s good for me. But…”. I find that amazing because he’s either the sad, quiet, shaking, Parkinson’s guy that we all beloved or the divisive loud mouth. And he’s so much more than that. At every juncture in this film, even within the fights and the contours, and the dramas, the twists and turns of the 20 or so fights that we examine in detail, there are internal dramas and changes. And that’s what I love.

I’d seen a quote that you gave, I think it was during one of the TCA press conferences: “I do not accept that only people of a particular background can tell certain stories about our past, particularly United States of America.” I think that’s an interesting note. I’m curious if you can unpack that a little. And also, what can be done to ensure that all sides are being heard from and that we’re seeing diverse voices?

You’ve taken it out of context. You’ve got the full transcript in which I’m talking about that I’ve been in the business of history all my life, and it’s all interconnected and you can’t separate the stories, in that I have been talking about since the very beginning of my professional life, talking about the United States. Which means I’m talking about race and telling stories from multiple perspectives and using people of color and of different backgrounds to help as my collaborators to tell those stories. And that, of course, we encourage… The previous sentence is encouraging people to tell their stories, and I celebrate that.

I also came across a quote the other day that I think really speaks to me. It’s from Dr. King. He said, “All life is interrelated. All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be, until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be, until I am what I ought to be”. I just wept when I stumbled across it and I’m committing it to memory because it’s just such a powerful and potent thing. We have to listen. We have to expand the lens of what has traditionally been American history and that’s not done enough. But in my work, I have done that and have always done that.

I think it’s an important point and I think PBS does it better than anyone else. Therefore, it’s expected that we can do even better and we can do. And I think many of the initiatives that Paula Kerger and Sylvia Bugg announced at that TCA are doing exactly that, dedicating millions and millions of dollars to help sort of correct that. You should know that I…I think I also said this then, I get a tiny fraction of my budgets from PBS. I go out and raise it from everybody else. We attract because of the success and the popularity of the films. We also attract a lot of money into PBS that helps pay for these initiatives. I think it’s pretty good. And you wouldn’t want to say somebody couldn’t tell this kind of story, because then the opposite would be true and you’d be in a really horrific boat.

It’s interesting, I read an article on SlashFilm, and the criticism … not necessarily criticizing you, but it was voicing the concern … of kind of the indirect consequence, saying that if you, as a very prominent filmmaker, do something like this [project], that it makes it harder, potentially, for a filmmaker of color to tackle this story. Because you’ve done this in such a comprehensive way. I don’t quite know where I land, but wanted to surface with you.

It’s just not true. Since 2008, I think it was, 2007, PBS had already aired several other documentaries on Muhammad Ali. Territory that I’m working on now had already been covered by filmmakers of color… films that I have in the pipeline right now that have been done. So it just doesn’t. What you’re saying is that it’s valuable to have multiple perspectives and that’s what PBS has done for 50 years and done better than anybody else. It’s just because it is public and service, more of it can be asked. And that’s what it is. So I didn’t take any of it personally, because I know the dynamics of the funding and I know the dynamics of our work. And in no way does my doing these things scare anybody else away.

But then what are you saying? Because then the implication is a person of color couldn’t do something about somebody white, for example. You know what I mean? Then you’re in a huge, big tangle. What you want to say, we need to listen to as many voices as possible. We need to have the diversity and the equity and inclusion that are at the hallmark of what PBS believes in and what we, as individual filmmakers, have to adhere to that. In fact, 43%, I think it was, of the inner staff of the Muhammad Ali project were Black people and 50 something [percent] were women. And that was true back when I did the Jazz series, now more than 20 years ago. Twenty-five years ago, when we started the Jazz series, that was the same number.

Also, as you’re saying here, talking about how there’s so much material that didn’t make it into this. Not because it’s not good material, but just because you’re trying to fit this into a certain slate. There are so many different projects that people have looked at over the years. You were able to unearth so many things where someone could absolutely take that as an engine and go look and explode that world.

If you take our Jazz series, that’s already happened. Filmmakers of color have taken moments or people that have made modest appearances, because of the amount of ground we are covering in Jazz and done films. The same is true in Baseball and other subjects we’ve tackled. World War II. There’s nothing that preempts anybody else from doing anything by the work. And the number of hours I have is relatively modest, if you consider what Henry Louis Gates has per year, between Finding Your Roots and his own projects on that. Let’s see, there eight here, and there’s six of Hemingway earlier this year, so that’s 14 out of 250 hours of cultural programming and history programming. That’s not a big lion’s share. Most important is that the percentage of PBS money in my budget is much smaller than most of the filmmakers who are funded by PBS.

How do you choose a subject and a project and is appealing to a specific demographic of audience in general, like a younger audience, is that ever something that comes into mind? Is it being culturally relevant at the time? Or are you just looking for a good story?

I’m just looking for a good story and I would be ashamed if I used any other metric to determine what that was. I have been doing this for nearly 50 years, and it’s just a good story. I’ve stayed those 50 years with public broadcasting, because that’s where you can do something that doesn’t fit some focus panel’s idea of what a film should be. And surprisingly, a lot of them have been great and not just fitting a demo… Remember, PBS is like the fifth or sixth largest network. It’s in every household. These things then live in schools, so I’m reaching a young demographic all the time. Today’s a school day, I’m sure somewhere schools are playing a portion of the Civil War series or Lewis and Clark or Jazz or Baseball or some such thing. That’s a great testament to films that are 31 years old and 25 years old and 20 years old. That’s good.

Thank you so much for your time. This was very enjoyable.

I’m so glad you liked the Ali thing. We’ve worked so hard and we’ve… it’s not falling in love with him. I was in love with him anyway. I remember the Rome Olympics. I remember the Liston fight, my dad, and we’d loved his stand on Vietnam because we are on a college campus and we were opposed to the war. All this did is just enrich and give dimension to all of it. And it’s important that there be undertow and nuance and contradiction, otherwise, it’s hagiography. Otherwise, it’s just a fanzine kind of feature. And it shouldn’t be. This is a hugely complicated human being who just happens to be, when he dies, the most beloved person on the planet.

Honestly, someone who you’re never going to see again.

No, it’s impossible.