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One film, in four parts, over eight hours, about a three-time champion

Ken Burns talks about ‘Muhammad Ali,’ the documentary, and Muhammad Ali, the man

Ken Burns in 2019.
Ken Burns in 2019.Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/file

There have been many documentaries about Muhammad Ali — three by my count in the past year alone. Not to mention the feature films, including last year’s Oscar-nominated “One Night in Miami.” But until now his life has not received the epic Ken Burns treatment. With daughter Sarah Burns and son-in-law David McMahon, Burns has directed “Muhammad Ali.” Their four-part, eight-hour account of the three-time heavyweight champion spans his evolution from the most reviled athlete in the country to the most beloved person on the planet. It airs Sept. 19-22 on PBS. Fresh from this year’s three part, 5½-hour “Hemingway,” and prior to his upcoming two-part, four-hour Benjamin Franklin documentary, Burns adds Muhammad Ali to his cinematic Mount Rushmore of American greats.

Burns spoke about Ali by telephone from New York City, where he was doing publicity for the film.

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Q. What did you hope to accomplish with this film?

A. We were really mindful that there are lots of documentaries about Muhammad Ali and many of them are really extraordinary, so this is in no way a criticism of the existing record about him. We just wanted to do the entire arc of the life. Many of [the other films] are about a particular fight, or a few years of his life, or his battle with the US [government], but we really wanted to know who he was from his birth and boyhood in segregated, Jim Crow Louisville, Ky., to his death [at 74] of Parkinson’s, in 2016. And not focus just on boxing, which is the central thing, but on his childhood, his brother, his parents, the pressures of Jim Crow and the support the West End of Louisville gave him, getting into boxing, his wives, all of that was important. I wanted to see this not as a fixed thing but as a moving, evolving spiritual journey.

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Q. How do you see him ranking as a historical figure?

A. This is a man who intersects with every important theme of the second half of the 20th century. The role of sports in society, the role of Black athletes in society, the changing definition of Black masculinity and Black manhood, about civil rights, and the different approaches to it. He had this extraordinary character, larger than life, a human being with strengths and weaknesses we were unafraid to show but that play in a way that is so inspirational that, in essence, the story becomes one about freedom, about courage, and about love.

This is an amazing story without even delving into the boxing, which is like a series of Shakespearean plays. The first Liston fight, the first Frazier fight, that unbelievable loss and him transforming the tragedy — in quotes — into a renewed popularity, with people letting go of some of the things that had so antagonized them about Muhammad Ali. And obviously the fight with George Foreman, in 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, and the fight in Manila, the third fight against Frazier.

Muhammad Ali enjoying a spontaneous encounter with his fans in Detroit, circa 1977, from "Muhammad Ali."
Muhammad Ali enjoying a spontaneous encounter with his fans in Detroit, circa 1977, from "Muhammad Ali."Courtesy Michael Gaffney

Q. Would you call him a tragic Shakespearean hero?

A. I would drop the word “tragic,” which is why I would put it in quotes, because the man dies the most beloved person on the planet. I just finished a film on Ernest Hemingway: That’s tragic. Though there are the excruciating aspects [to Ali’s life], such as the role that Parkinson’s played and his reluctance to end his career until it was too late, he transforms even that into this magisterial post-boxing life that encompasses global things and he becomes a kind of apostle of love. He was a superhero, the real thing, with an Achilles’ heel and the hubris to go along with the great strength.

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Q. What were his greatest flaws?

A. I thought it was important for us to include that he was a serial womanizer as well as include the betrayal — abandonment is a better word — of Malcolm X, and the inexcusable treatment of Joe Frazier. This is the ultimate, conscious Black man using the language of a white racist, not just against Frazier but other opponents as well, like Floyd Patterson.

Q. Did you think his membership in the Nation of Islam contributed more to his strengths or his failings?

A. It seems that Elijah Muhammad [then leader of the group] was a real father figure. However cuckoo some aspects of the Nation of Islam theology might have been, however far it is or was from mainstream Islam, it provided Ali with a worldview that began a spiritual quest that eventually outgrew it. Elijah Muhammad lifted him up and gave him this worldview that was beginning to animate and ignite his spiritual journey. The Malcolm X [betrayal] Ali knew was wrong, but the kind of Islam that he came to openly embrace had more of a resemblance to mainstream Islam, which is the place that Malcolm got to when he died.

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Q. Benjamin Franklin is next for you?

A. I just finished a film last spring on Benjamin Franklin, who was born the same day as Muhammad Ali. If Muhammad Ali is the greatest of the 20th century, Benjamin Franklin is the greatest of the 18th century, for a whole variety of skills and talents and flaws. He was the greatest diplomat in American history — nothing Washington did would have been successful without the diplomatic assistance of Franklin. He was on the level of Isaac Newton when it came to scientific discoveries. He would have won a Nobel Prize if there were one then. He was a great writer and stylist and politician in the same way Ali is all kinds of things.

Q. And he never owned slaves.

A. He did own slaves. Household slaves, as was common in the North. He became an abolitionist later.

Q. Well, I’ve learned something and I haven’t even seen the movie yet.

In addition to broadcasting on PBS, “Muhammad Ali” can be streamed on the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel beginning Sept. 19. Go to amzn.to/3Adnvvw.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.