Commentary: Burns’s ‘Muhammad Ali’ tells a story that teems with relevance

September 7, 2021 5:55 am
Muhammad Ali lies on his stomach making a fist

Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) lies on his hotel bed in London on May 27, 1963, three weeks before his match against Henry Cooper. (Len Trievnor | Daily Express | Hulton Archive | Getty Images)

Although Ken Burns’s “Muhammad Ali” opens during the age of black-and-white television, Ali’s spirit remains so alive today that it is jarring to see him dancing about in colorless footage as Sonny Liston stalks the ring seeking to land the blow that will shut the kid’s mouth.

That is what much of the crowd and much of the country wanted and expected on Feb. 25, 1964. Ali, just 22 years old, was brash and full of himself, “a Black man who bragged,” in Burns’s words. In a country where the Jim Crow South and Northern diehards resisted the civil rights movement, a high and mighty Black boxer could not be tolerated. But Liston never landed the punch, and Ali, fighting as Cassius Clay, knocked him out.

And so the legend began.

Burns’s timely and revealing four-part “Muhammad Ali” debuts on PBS stations on Sept. 19. Eight hours may seem long for one man’s tale, but as you watch the story unfold, you begin to wonder how the filmmakers will fit everything in. Five years after his death, in the Me Too and Black Lives Matter era, Ali’s story teems with relevance. Seen whole, flaws and all, the man who called himself the Greatest seems greater than ever.

I have watched nearly all Burns’s biographical films, but Ali is the first of his subjects whose public life I followed in real time from beginning to end. While I learned plenty new from the incidents and perspectives portrayed in the film, my bottom-line view is that Burns got him right. At every step of the way, the Ali I knew is the man whose life is told on film.

To trace the arc of that life, Burns and his colleagues followed the path of previous documentaries made at Florentine Films, Burns’s company in Walpole, N.H. The filmmakers interviewed 40 subjects for roughly two hours each. In addition to two of Ali’s four wives, some of his children, and people important during his career, they spoke with sportswriters who covered him, two of his biographers, historians, professors, poets, and even the novelist Walter Mosley. In the film, one-time world champ Larry Holmes describes his bout with Ali, and the former boxer Michael Bentt offers insights into Ali’s big fights. The Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka recites from his elegy for Ali. Its final stanza catches the essence of the film:


But the sorcerer is gone,

The lion withdrawn to a lair of time and space

Inaccessible as the sacred lining of a crown

When kings were kings, and lords of rhyme and pace.

The enchantment is over but, the spell remains.


Ali’s universe always extended beyond the 400 square feet of a boxing ring. He used the megaphone of fame to speak for equal rights. With the country riven by the Vietnam War, he resisted the draft as a matter of conscience; his quarrel, he said, was with American racists, not the Vietnamese. Despite the eccentricity of the Nation of Islam, which he joined early in life, the physical challenges of his latter days led him on a true spiritual journey. His deeds won him worldwide fame and admiration. Personally, he was so charming that when he performed magic tricks, he explained them afterward, preferring not to leave his audience befuddled by what they had just seen.

The first Liston fight came at a time of violence and turmoil in America. During the previous year, racists had murdered NAACP leader Medgar Evers in his driveway and bombed a Birmingham church, killing four Black schoolgirls. An assassin had slain President Kennedy in Dallas. Before Liston and Ali met for a rematch with the same result, Klansman massacred three voting rights activists in Mississippi.

Read Mike Pride’s conversation with Ken Burns about his new film, “Muhammad Ali”

Ali became a lightning rod during the 1960s, a decade dominated by the generation gap and youthful rage over racial injustice and the Vietnam War. Was he a draft dodger or a conscientious objector? A rabble-rouser on race or a man speaking his own truth? Hate him or love him, as New Yorker editor David Remnick says in the film, “you had an opinion.”

The filmmakers zero in on the big fights in Ali’s two decades as a professional boxer: the first matchup with Liston, three increasingly brutal bouts with Joe Frazier, and the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali’s stunning upset of the younger, stronger George Foreman. Like many fighters before him, Ali stayed in the ring too long. He was nearly 40 and much diminished when he last fought. His decline, excruciating to watch in real time, is only a little less so in the film.

As much as there is to admire about Ali, his faults loomed large, too. At a young age, during a feud among Black Muslim leaders, he callously shunned his friend Malcolm X. His motormouth efforts to gin up interest in his fights by mocking his opponents, particularly Frazier, were often cruel and even played to racist stereotypes. Ali taunted Frazier relentlessly, insulting his intelligence and abilities and, before the third fight, portraying him as a dumb gorilla. 

Although the family members interviewed for the film clearly still love Ali, he was a serial philanderer who neglected his children. During a recent conversation, Burns took pains to distinguish between Ali’s marital indiscretions and the predatory behavior of the many men outed during the “Me Too” era. “Ali was unfaithful,” he said. “That’s what he did. He didn’t do anything with anybody where they didn’t want that thing to happen.” This may be a fair distinction, but Ali constantly used his power and fame to get away with hurtful infidelities.

In the gloved boxing era, which began in 1882, Ali was the last heavyweight champion upon whom the title conferred universal fame. Think about it: How many people can even name the champion today?

David McMahon and Sarah Burns, who cowrote the script and co-directed the film with Ken Burns, each had thoughts about this change. McMahon speculated during an interview that Ali “made boxing interesting for longer than it might have been without him.” Sarah Burns suggested that boxing lost its mass appeal because public views about manhood evolved. As defined by Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and other midcentury writers, real men sought their identities in perilous physical confrontation. The macho culture still thrives, but the roles of men often include partnering in parenting, sharing in household chores, and supporting working spouses. “Our expectations about masculinity changed,” Sarah Burns said.

As for the Ali project, she borrowed her father’s favorite New Hampshire analogy to describe how its makers turned the raw material of a seven-year search into Ali’s life into a comprehensive film biography. It is like making maple syrup, Ken Burns likes to say, boiling down 40 gallons of sap for each gallon of syrup. “Ali is kind of an open book,” McMahon added. “It’s not difficult to get close to him because he’s authentic.”

Ali continued to transcend his sport long after his career ended. In 1996, his lighting of the torch at the Atlanta Olympic Games seemed to project a brighter future for race relations. Despite the ups and downs of the intervening quarter century, the film’s depiction of that moment rekindles its promise. The Ali story, lit large from beginning to end, celebrates how a flawed but self-assured young man became a unifying presence in what remains a divided land. 

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Mike Pride
Mike Pride

Mike Pride, a retired newspaper editor, is a writer and historian. His latest book is No Place for a Woman: Harriet Dame’s Civil War.