Legendary Documentarian Ken Burns brings "Muhammad Ali" to PBS
Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns has given us an emotional, enlightening, educational and entertaining pathway back into history and provided a mirror and window for us to understand stories of why we are created equal. Since his Academy Award nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Burns has reached historical status as the director and producer of some of the most acclaimed documentaries ever made. Among them, The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994) and Jazz (2001).
Burns' latest four-part PBS documentary series Muhammad Ali premieres September 19. He once again succeeds in his goal of touching something distinctly American with each of his amazing projects.
Burns joined SportsJam with Doug Doyle to talk about the new series that took six years to complete. Muhammad Ali was also written and co-directed by Ken’s daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, whose previous collaborations with Burns include The Central Park Five (2012), Jackie Robinson (2016) and East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story (2020).
"Huge credit goes to them (Sarah and David) and our extraordinary team of editors and footage finders to get the stuff. I mean there's a lot of documentaries on Muhammad Ali, none of them from birth to death in quite as detail, but I think we have also been able to offer not just the experts and the pundits but also the family members who've been calling us, crying, saying I've never seen that picture of my dad or I've never seen that picture of my husband or that piece of footage. So were sort of thrilled by the early response."
Burns says he loves Muhammad Ali.
"I think I realized having looked back on 40 plus years of making films and many of them biographies and certainly biographies being the constituent building blocks of the big series like The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz, just how an important figure he is. How mythic he is. You know Walt Whitman describes this kind of idea of an uber-American, someone who contradicts himself. Muhammad Ali is a great teacher, a great mythic figure in our culture. He's obviously the greatest athlete of the 20th Century. I don't think you could have any argument about that and I willing to have that kind of discussion, and respect some people who say it's somebody else. I don't know who that somebody else is. But he's also somebody who intersects with all the major questions of the last half of the 20th Century. Low and behold after we lift our heads up after those six years of working, he's a figure speaking directly to us about what's going on now, in every way shape and form. If it's race, if it's politics, if it's religion, if it's Me Too, if it's Black Lives Matter, he's there and he's doing it with a heart that evolved, that is so capacious that you realize there are very few people who die the most beloved, if anyone, the most beloved person on the planet."
Burns uses actor and retired boxer Michael Bentt to analyze Ali's heavyweight fights.
"When we start fights, he's our man telling us what's going on. He's a wonderful guide for all of us, particularly for those who aren't drawn to boxing except when it's somebody extraordinary. I don't really like boxing but I made two films about boxing, one on Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight and now on Muhammad Ali with Sarah and Dave."
The documentarian says even though many of Ali's tactics in the ring are wrong like leaning back to avoid a punch, but stresses "The Greatest" is always adjusting, dancing and do the rope-a-dope at times to frustrate his opponent.
"There's a kind of exquisite beauty to watching his intelligence. This is a brutal sport, physically brutal sport that he brought this heart and mind to. Now obviously other boxers have to bring their heart. You have to want to beat your opponent. You have to want it really bad. Our eyes show us in the first (Joe) Frazier fight, Frazier wanted it more. But it's very clear and you see in Ali, this exquisite way of trying to understand the dimensions of it."
Episode two of the series focuses on the boxer's fight to be heard and respected. Broadcasters, newspaper reporters and even his opponents refused to refer to Cassius Clay once he changed his name after accepting the teachings of the Nation of Islam. It was on March 6, 1964, that Olympic Gold Medalist and charismatic fighter took the name Muhammad Ali, which was given to him by his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad. Burns says that lack of respect motivated Ali to manhandle some of his opponents in the ring.
"I think no more so than in the (Ernie) Terrell when he's sick of people saying you're Cassius Clay. One of the Burns's documentaries have earned two Academy Award nominations (for 1981's Brooklyn Bridge and 1985's The Statue of Liberty) and have won several Emmy Awards, among other honors.great fights. He's just dominating the whole thing and he's just saying 'What's my name?, what's my name? He's just being asked to be respected as a man."
The 25th anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s Olympic Torch Lighting in Atlanta was earlier this month. Burns is teaming up with ESPN's "The Undefeated" program to hold a series of hour-long discussions with special guests. You can go here for more information about those discussions or join the conversation on social media at #MuhammadAliPBS.
Some the other Burns documentaries include The War (2007), The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Roosevelts (2014), The Vietnam War (2017), and Country Music (2019).
Ken Burns lost his mom to breast cancer before he turned 12, but he says she and others helped shaped his love of reading and history.
"I've been so fortunate, I've had so many mentors and teachers, beginning with the father and mother. My mother was sick for almost a decade. She was incredibly brave and lived far longer than doctors predicted, but it was a devastating childhood for younger brother Rick and me. My father didn't do too well with it afterwards either, but I got my love of film from him who cried once at a movie he let me stay up and watch. I had a teacher who reminded me that there is as much drama in what is and what was than anything that the human imagination. So this idea of being a filmmaker didn't necessarily be Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford or Steven Spielberg, I could be documentary. I've always had this love of history and just reading, untrained. I didn't take history courses except when they made you take it. The last course I took in history in college was Russian history, so go figure."
Jazz great Wynton Marsalis has called Burns “a master of timing and knowing sweet spot of a story, of how to ask questions to get to the basic human feeling and to draw out the true spirit of a given subject.”
Burns says his appreciation for jazz continues to grow, especially since his extremely well-received Jazz documentary in 2001.
"I'm a child of R & B and Rock and Roll and that's who I am right and I love all that stuff but suddenly I was introduced mostly by Wynton and by my long-time writer and collaborator Jeffrey Ward to this American art form that's recognized around the world and it rearranged all my molecules. I listen to it all the time. It's sustaining in a way. It has a kind of dimension and a nourishment that I love."
The video version of the SportsJam interview with Ken Burns can be seen at https://fb.watch/6Pb8GBbooz/.