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American Heavyweight boxer, Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) seen on his hotel bed in London, England in 1963.
Len Trievnor/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ken Burns’s latest is on the Greatest

The filmmaker and his daughter Sarah Burns discuss their new PBS documentary about Muhammad Ali.

It’s easy to think we know all we need to know about Muhammad Ali. What new perspective on the late heavyweight champion could we possibly gain from a new documentary about him? Turns out, quite a bit.

A new documentary about him premiered September 19 on PBS, and it’s directed by the legendary filmmaker Ken Burns, along with his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband and collaborator, David McMahon.

It feels a bit dangerous to presume that we know people drenched in fame. I’m no Ali expert, which is probably why I think there’s a lot to learn from watching this excellent film. It’s filled with incredible footage the filmmakers unearthed, some of it previously unseen.

Both Ken and Sarah Burns joined me on Vox Conversations for a fascinating discussion about their latest film, its subject, and the art of documentary storytelling. An excerpt of our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

Listen to the conversation below on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Jamil Smith

I wanted to first ask you, Sarah Burns: The style of Ali, the persona; our generation never got a chance to see him in his prime. We’ve only seen clips. We only heard soundbites. What made his style so distinctive? What was so special about him in the ring?

Sarah Burns

I think what’s so amazing about Ali as a boxer has a lot to do with what’s so amazing about Ali as a person. His charisma comes through in the ring in the way that he defines the fights, the way that he creates a narrative around them and creates these stakes for each fight. But it’s also because of the way he was as a fighter, which was really something new and different.

And he was someone who insisted on being himself, on being free to be who he was in every way. He didn’t follow the rules of boxing. He did all these things that you’re not supposed to do. He kept his hands low. He would lean back away from punches; no one would have taught him to do that.

Jamil Smith

You just don’t do that in boxing.

Sarah Burns

No, it’s crazy. I mean, any trainer would have tried to get his hands on him and say no, no, no, this is not what you do. We have to duck this way. We have to parry punches, and he wasn’t going to do that. And Angelo Dundee was smart enough, I think, to recognize that he was going to be who he was in the ring, too.

And he had this incredible ability to measure the distance. So he knew just how far away he had to be from his opponent, and how far he had to lean back to get away from a punch ... and that was not something that anyone else was doing.

Muhammad Ali knocks out Sonny Liston in the first round of his return title fight in Maine in 1965.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jamil Smith

I think back to that [Sonny] Liston fight, in which [Ali] hit him with that particular punch at that particular moment when Liston was a particular distance from him, and he knew that he could only really use that punch right there.

Ken, did you ever watch him when you were younger? Do you have any memories of seeing Ali?

Ken Burns

Very rarely live. The Ken Norton fight, I think, was the first one that was live TV. We saw some clips from the Olympics in [1960]. We saw the stuff coming out of the first Liston fight; it was mesmerizing, but as Sarah suggested, it wasn’t just what was happening in the ring. It wasn’t just this new style of boxing that was fast and dancing, that he was good for floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. It was the personality, it was the outspokenness, it was the poetry, it was the braggadocio. It was his beginning to sort of push himself and tempt the larger society.

First of all, he’s bragging. And by the time you hit the Liston fight, people want to shut him up, and he’s not going to be shut up. Strike one. And he’s a new definition of Black manhood and a Black sportsman. The second strike is after he beats Liston, he announces that he’s part of the Nation of Islam, and that’s already been labeled as a hate group by Mike Wallace and other people terrified that this doesn’t fit the mold of the Christian, turn-the-other-cheek, nonviolent civil rights movement that’s gaining traction. And then, of course, strike number three is saying that he’s going to refuse induction into the draft.

So everything that he did [in the ring] is set against the background of all of the things that he did outside the ring. And so you’re constantly interrelating that. And I remember my dad and I were taking our cues a little bit from Howard Cosell, who was off-put by the braggadocio but then was one of the earliest to come and understand a little bit about who he was. And I don’t think it’s out of any altruistic thing. I think they both knew that there was a potential symbiotic relationship. They were a good show together and they could play off each other. And so they went on and feigned a kind of animosity.

But I remember in the beginning when he refused to call him Muhammad Ali, we were sort of along with him. And then all of a sudden, we went way beyond Howard Cosell because we were against the war. And when he was against the war, then he was our guy and he was defining a new, more militant, activist civil rights posture. He’s provocative in every sort of way. And that was something, at least in my little bailiwick, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on a college campus, we could relate to him.

I made another film on boxing, about Jack Johnson. You have lots of similarities in the ring, but Jack Johnson was just for himself. Muhammad Ali was for other people. And you can see in between all of the braggadocio, this sense that he had a mission in life, this sense that he was there to help other people, the sense that he had obligations. So, as he said, service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven. He’s got the biggest room I know.

Jamil Smith

Your documentary on Jack Johnson was one of the first times I really learned about the Jack Johnson story. And to me, you’ve become an expert at encapsulating the enormity of events and people we think we already know. We think we already know what the Civil War is about. We thought we already knew what country music is. And we definitely thought we knew who Jackie Robinson was.

Muhammad Ali, you can correct me if I’m wrong — it sounds like the biggest challenge of all. I mean, this is a guy who is a household name for everybody, throughout the world. How do you approach that challenge?

Ken Burns

Well, I think one of the keys to this is the fact that we have stayed with public broadcasting the whole time. PBS has one foot tentatively in the marketplace and the other firmly and proudly out of it, so there’s no set time. We can spend 10 and a half years on the Vietnam War and get it right.

I’d argue that the Civil War and the Vietnam War were the most complicated. All of the projects, whether it’s about the Shakers, or about the Brooklyn Bridge, or Huey Long, they all have a set of problems and complications to them that you look forward to trying to overcome.

And part of it is this insistence that you dive as deep as possible, that every human being and every story has contradiction and undertow, whereas Wynton Marsalis once said to me in Jazz, sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time. And if you can juggle that, if you can manage it, then you can get below the superficial, the conventional wisdom about Muhammad Ali. And you can find in that undertow, in that contradiction, something that makes him bigger and more important.

Sarah Burns

And I think that with Ali, we want to look at the context of his life and what’s happening with civil rights and what he’s in conversation with in his own time. But it’s also in conversation with right now.

Muhammad Ali walks through the streets with members of the Black Panther Party in New York City in 1970. Ali was sentenced to five years in prison and his championship title was revoked because of his refusal to serve the US military in Vietnam. His criminal conviction was overturned in 1971.
Getty Images

Ken Burns

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” And we’ve never had a film that hasn’t rhymed in the present and allowed us to just tell the story. We didn’t have to look up and try to figure out how to relate it to the present. We just knew we have to trust. It’s hard enough to tell a good, complicated story, but we knew that whatever we told, it would rhyme.

Jamil Smith

I mean, Ali helped redefine Black manhood in a lot of ways, but I think he also was defining Black power before the Black power movement emerged. Here was a Black guy from Louisville, Kentucky, who was allowed to hit white people in the face during Jim Crow, and was paid and glorified for it. Even his bravado never came off like it was about ego. It was simply stating the facts. He was beating people how he said he was going to beat them.

Sarah Burns

I also think that it’s important to understand that the way that he was bragging and the way that he did behave in that moment was in such contrast to even the Black boxers who had come before him and had great success. So you have Jack Johnson, who did what he wanted to do and was run out of the country for it. You have Joe Lewis who, in reaction to Jack Johnson, essentially has his handlers say, you can’t even show enthusiasm about winning. I mean, he really had to be so polite and deferential, in order to achieve what he did.

Ken Burns

And there’s another part of this that’s really, really important, which is, as he says, look at me. I’m so beautiful. I’m pretty as a girl. People are repulsed by it, who control the levers of power. But he is speaking for other people who do not feel that Black is beautiful. And he is saying that Black is beautiful and it’s all around the world.

Anyone who felt the boot of the oppressor realized that he was going in the face of that. And that perhaps you could draft in the wake of Muhammad Ali and there would be something better. And so all of that bragging was a way of saying, “I am somebody. Repeat after me, I am somebody.”

Muhammad Ali with his daughters Laila, left, and Hanna in 1978.
Frank Tewkesbury/Evening Standard/Getty Images

Jamil Smith

What’s fascinating to think about also is how much of his own manhood, how much of his own perspective, as an adult and as a Black man in this country was shaped by Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. You do, essentially, mini-biographies of Malcolm, of Elijah Muhammad, and a lot of other people within the film. How did you decide to approach it in that way?

Sarah Burns

Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X are among the most important characters in this story who are not Muhammad Ali himself. And it was important to us to make sure that we really could understand that Ali’s story, as a journey in faith, is something that is influencing him across his entire life.

Ken Burns

And that provides a kind of fluidity. Our tendency is to do the take on the Nation of Islam and you fix them in time and that’s it — but this is an evolving process for them, particularly for our hero in his journey.

To me, it’s a hugely important way to understand and undergird the more familiar boxing story — who won, who lost, what happened — that sort of stuff, that underlying it and permitting it to be fluid is essential to telling a good story.

Jamil Smith

He’s a human being, that’s the thing. Sometimes we forget, these larger-than-life people. He’s not even 30 when he fights Joe Frazier for the first time. And he’s the old guy. We forget sometimes, how human they are and how young they are.

Ken Burns

It’s hugely important to understand that context, and how fallible they are. You actually have to acknowledge all of these inner tensions. He’s being pulled in lots of different directions. And sometimes he goes in directions that aren’t good.

You know, we somehow in our media culture expect heroes to be perfect and lament the opposite about them. When in fact, the Greeks, who designed this notion of heroism, have told us that what’s interesting is the negotiation, sometimes the war, between a hero’s great strengths and their weaknesses. Achilles had his heel and his hubris to go along with his great strengths.

And so you have to tell a story of Muhammad Ali that is faithful, in every sense of that word, to who he was. And that’s an ever-changing target. And we wanted to follow it along, rather than have the convenience of fixing him in amber and then talking around him. We don’t know him. He knows him, and we let the record speak for itself.

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