‘Muhammad Ali’ explores the many layers of ‘The Greatest’
By Finn Cohen
One day in the mid-1990s, Ken Burns had a cold while he was in Los Angeles to raise money for his next documentary. He ducked into a coffee shop for some hot tea, and after paying, one of the 20th century’s most ardent historians turned from the counter and locked eyes with perhaps its most towering icon. Muhammad Ali was sitting in a booth nearby. The two men stared at each other silently for longer than most strangers would — celebrities or not.
“There’s was almost no movement on both of us except that kind of opening, that love that happens when you just feel unashamed and unembarrassed by the persistent gaze,” Burns said recently. “This wordless conversation; I have the script in my head, I heard his voice in my mind. But it was just without going over and shaking hands, of course, not asking for an autograph or anything like that.”
By that point, Ali was in the clutches of Parkinson’s disease — hence the silence from a man who for many decades couldn’t stop talking: about his own beauty and skill, about how ugly and untalented his opponents were, about the injustice Black people across America had faced for hundreds of years.
Nearly three decades later, Burns; his oldest daughter, Sarah; and her husband, David McMahon, have stitched together a sweeping portrait of Ali’s impact from more than 40 years of footage and photographs. “Muhammad Ali,” a four-part documentary series that premieres Sept. 19 on PBS, follows the arc of a man whose life intersected with many of modern America’s most profound changes — and who was also not as widely revered in his prime as he is now.
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and author of “King of the World,” a 1998 biography of Ali, said “it was very clear that a lot of America found him dangerous, threatening to the way people were ‘supposed’ to behave — much less Black people.”
“He won people over because he was right about the war,” Remnick continued. “He won people over because as an athlete, he proved himself over and over again to be not only beautiful to watch, but unbelievably courageous. So his athleticism and his superiority as an athlete just couldn’t be denied, even when he lost.”
There has been no shortage of documentaries or biographies about Ali in the past few decades. For these filmmakers, the idea took root in 2014, when their friend Jonathan Eig was working on a book about Ali, “Ali: A Life” (2017). Eig’s research led him to believe that a comprehensive film representation of Ali’s life had not been done before, and that the Burnses were the perfect team to do it.
McMahon said it took only a few archival clips to convince them of the potential power of a wide-ranging Ali documentary. “There were so many possibilities to tie together all these threads that were kind of out there,” he said. “You’d see documentaries that had been about a single chapter in his life or a single fight, or books covering only a portion of his life.”
The more the filmmakers dug into Ali’s life, Sarah Burns said, the more they realized “just how much there was to this story.”
“Not just the boxing, obviously,” she said, “but his relationships with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, his family life, his marriages, his draft resistance and his courage and being willing to go to jail for his convictions, and also his battle with Parkinson’s — you know, his later life, his post-boxing life.” That “really hadn’t,” she added, “been explored in as much detail.”
The new series traces a path from the young Cassius Clay in Jim Crow-era Louisville, Kentucky, to the complicated, at times self-contradictory adult who won the heavyweight title three times and faced down the U.S. government over his refusal to fight in Vietnam. The filmmakers show him as not only a dominant heavyweight during his peak fighting years but also a figure of no small impact on society. Here is “The Greatest” clowning with the Beatles; standing at a podium with Malcolm X; embracing Martin Luther King Jr.; calling another Black fighter an “Uncle Tom” for refusing to acknowledge his name change, as a leering Howard Cosell tells the cameras to “keep shooting” the ensuing scuffle; and finally declaring publicly — at risk to his career and endorsements — that he was a Muslim.
Ali’s rise to stardom coincided with a period of intense cultural change in the United States, and his connection to the Civil Rights and anti-war movements is critical in distinguishing Ali the man from Ali the boxer, McMahon said — and in recognizing his effect on American audiences.
“You can’t understand his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army without understanding his faith, without understanding the meaning of Elijah Muhammad in his life,” he said, referring to the mercurial and sometimes caustic leader of the Nation of Islam, with whom Ali had a close relationship. “We hadn’t really seen that explained. There were also perspectives that hadn’t been heard; we thought, ‘Who out there could tell us more about his faith?’”
Eig, the biographer, shared a huge trove of contacts with the filmmakers, and they started their initial interviews in 2016, a week after Ali died. Dozens of writers, friends and boxing ambassadors participated: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Holmes, Jesse Jackson, novelist Walter Mosley, ESPN writer Howard Bryant, boxing promoter Don King.
The series comes to a close as Ali has become, as Ken Burns described it, “the most beloved person on the planet.” The footage of his trembling surprise appearance at the 1996 Olympics, in Atlanta, is a crucial piece of Ali’s lasting image and mythology. But as Burns put it, “mythology is a mask.”
Bryant, who argued that Ali changed the relationship between athletes and fans, was more direct about the boxer’s evolving public image in those later years.
“People hated his guts, and white people didn’t love him until he couldn’t talk,” Bryant said. “There were people — Black and white — who still called him Cassius Clay; there were people who still did not want to give him his due. And there were people who still held a lot against him.
“Then he couldn’t talk, and suddenly he belonged to everybody.”
Ken Burns suggested that this public redemption was akin to “a funeral where people are talking really nicely about other people.”
“And you go, ‘Why can’t we do this in the rest of our lives?’” he said. “The funeral isn’t for the person who’s dead — the funeral is for the people who are left behind, and we’re always modeling the best, most human behavior. And yet, we don’t seem to be able to bring it to our own lives.”