Ken Burns is one who stays busy.
During the pandemic, the acclaimed filmmaker was working on multiple projects.
His latest – co-directed by David McMahon and Sarah Burns – delves into the life of icon Muhammad Ali.
Burns says the four-part series was in development for six years. It will premiere at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19, on New Mexico PBS, Channel 5.1. The remaining three episodes will air Sept. 20-22, for a four-night broadcast.
Burns says projects that take a comprehensive look at one person are difficult.
“There are lots of really good films on him, and they cover a specific fight,” Burns says. “We were really determined to do a comprehensive piece in four parts, two hours apiece. It covers all the way to his death and weaves in stories of his personal life and his journey with faith.”
The film follows the life of one of the most consequential men of the 20th century, a three-time heavyweight boxing champion who captivated billions of fans with his combination of speed, agility and power in the ring, and his charm, wit and outspokenness outside it.
At the height of his fame, Ali challenged Americans’ racial prejudices, religious biases and notions about what roles celebrities and athletes play in our society, and inspired people all over the world with his message of pride and self-affirmation.
“Ali really changed how the world saw Black athletes,” Burns says. “It was a difficult task, and he took a lot of heat for it.”
Burns and crew drew from a trove of archival footage and photographs, contemporary music and the insights and memories of eyewitnesses – including family and friends, journalists, boxers and historians.
Although Burns doesn’t know too much about the sport, he couldn’t deny knowing about Ali, who called himself the “greatest of all time.”
Ali competed in some of the most dramatic and widely viewed sporting events ever, including “The Fight of the Century” and “The Thrilla in Manila,” both against his great rival Joe Frazier, and “The Rumble in the Jungle,” in which he defeated George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title that was stripped from him seven years earlier.
Burns says it was important to dive into Ali’s principled resistance to the Vietnam War, his steadfast commitment to his Muslim faith, and his complex relationships with Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, who profoundly shaped his life and world view.
“Muhammad Ali was the very best at what he did,” Burns says. “He was arguably America’s greatest athlete, and his unflinching insistence that he be unabashedly himself at all times made him a beacon for generations of people around the world seeking to express their own humanity.”
Although he is celebrated today as an icon of American sport and culture, Ali was not always widely embraced.
At times he was reviled by many in American society, especially white Americans and white members of the media, who rejected his faith and feared his involvement with the Nation of Islam.
Ali also faced a firestorm of criticism when he said, “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong” and refused induction into the U.S. Ar
my, citing his religious beliefs – a stance that would result in five years of legal jeopardy and a 3½-year banishment from boxing.
“He was a lightning rod for all of this,” Burns says. “He was brash, poetry spieling and wasn’t behaving the way athletes were supposed to. Then in 1964, he announces he’s a member of Islam. This is strike two. Ali hits strike three when he refuses induction to the U.S. Army. America sees it as a stance against them.”
Burns says that as he learned more about Ali, watching more than 400 hours of footage, he came to a conclusion.
“Ali was a man that led with his heart,” he says. “He gave up more than three years of his prime of his boxing career. At the end of the day, he saw his purpose as one who spreads love and fought for justice.”
Burns says with the release of the four-part series, it seems relevant to release it in today’s world.
“The issues that we are addressing in today’s world are the same Ali brought attention to,” Burns says. “The projects that I work on seem to have a relevance when they’re released. Ali broke through the barriers, and I hope an audience gets a well-rounded story.”