Ken Burns' PBS Muhammad Ali four-part documentary gives an expansive look at boxing legend's life

·5 min read

Sifting through 500 hours of archival footage, music and photos can be daunting for any filmmaker tasked with trying to create a seminal piece of art or entertainment.

Throw in the added stress of trying to complete the project and stay safe during a global pandemic, and the process can take on an added significance.

For directors Ken Burns, his oldest daughter, Sarah, and son-in-law David McMahon, the labor of love that went into their latest documentary profiling Muhammad Ali comes with the territory and has created a wide-ranging and in-depth look at the life of the boxing legend.

Muhammad Ali is shown training Oct. 9, 1974 for his world championship fight against title holder George Foreman.
Muhammad Ali is shown training Oct. 9, 1974 for his world championship fight against title holder George Foreman.

When first conceived, “Muhammad Ali” was intended to be a six-hour opus. The final cut stretched it out to eight, which will be shown on four consecutive nights on PBS starting Sept. 19.

“It's obvious he's one of the most important Americans in the history of the United States. He certainly is the greatest athlete of the 20th century,” Burns, who also executive produced the film, told USA TODAY Sports. “If he were alive in da Vinci’s or Michelangelo’s time, that would be the sculpture of David. Also, his life intersects with all of the major issues of the late second half of the 20th century.”

Four different editors, one for each broadcast night, meticulously cut the film. Although the film spent six years in the development stage, the script, penned by Sarah Burns and McMahon, took the better part of 18 months to complete.

Incorporated are interviews with Ali’s family, including daughters Rasheda and Hana, two of his ex-wives, and younger brother. Biographer Jonathan Eig and former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who sparred and lived with Ali and later defeated him in a 1980 bout, were just some of the voices who were brought in to add perspective.

But the writers ran into a snag early in the process. After finishing the third episode, they realized they hadn’t reached “The Rumble in Jungle,” Ali’s 1974 triumph over George Foreman. There were still four decades of Ali’s life remaining, so the necessity to add another night was obvious.

“We're like, this is going to be bigger,” Sarah Burns said. “We needed more space. There's so much material, there's so much of him and all that incredible footage of him talking, you know, he was always happy to get in front of a camera. It's not just about a particular fight or even just it's rare, obviously, that this is about a three-dimensional human being and all these different parts of his life, his faith journey, his boxing, of course, his family life, his draft resistance and his battle with the government.”

Muhammad Ali throws a punch at Joe Frazier, right, in the 12th round during their bout at Madison Square Garden on  Jan. 28, 1974.
Muhammad Ali throws a punch at Joe Frazier, right, in the 12th round during their bout at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 28, 1974.

Music also plays a vital part in the documentary as almost every contemporary genre is represented — from the rock sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana to hip-hop group Run the Jewels and Grammy winners Anderson.Paak and Digable Planets.

The filmmakers felt it was important for the music to complement Ali’s vigor in every scene. But finding music to license that would bring out his essence proved to be problematic, and many scenes began with harmonious pieces of music as opposed to building the scene in pictures.

Ali's 1966 destruction of Cleveland Williams is one example. The scene lets Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” take over but still allows the audience to take in the actual boxing match.

“Hendrix is doing new things with the guitar, and you got this beautiful footage and they're fighting in the past,” McMahon said. “And with the 60-millimeter film, the whole thing becomes kind of Technicolor and Hendrix gets right up underneath him. But I'm also grateful for those hip-hop beats and how they match Clay and later Muhammad’s energy.”

For as much as Burns has contributed to chronicling different aspects of the world through his documentaries, he is still dogged by the various grievances about PBS’ perceived lack of commitment to diversity. The tipping point was earlier this year when dozens of BIPOC documentary filmmakers signed a letter, which was given to the network’s executives.

Among the complaints in the letter was accusing PBS of having a “systemic failure to fulfill (its) mandate for a diversity of voices” and issues with Burns’ four-decade partnership with PBS, which many have noted as an interdependence.

“When you program an 8-part series on Muhammad Ali by Ken Burns, what opportunity is there for a series or even a one-off film to be told by a Black storyteller who may have a decidedly different view?” the letter said.

Burns, who has an exclusive deal with PBS through 2022 and whose next projects will focus on Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci, says when it comes to filmmaking, especially profiling a subject who is not white, it shouldn’t matter who makes them.

The most recent documentaries on Ali, “City of Ali,” which focuses on Ali’s relationship with his hometown of Louisville, is directed by Graham Shelby, and "Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali," helmed by Marcus A. Clarke.

Shelby is White and Clarke is Black.

“I did not take it personally. We can all do better in this in this way, and PBS has been better than anybody else in this,” Burns said about the criticism. “I’m thinking about, the incredibly diverse team we have for Muhammad Ali. And it's basically the same percentages that we had, you know, 25 years ago when we began our jazz series. I'm in the business of history and that includes everyone. And I've tried to tell the story of this country in an inclusive way.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Muhammad Ali Ken Burns PBS documentary a deep dive into legend