Muhammad Ali and us: A conversation with Ken Burns

By: - September 7, 2021 5:58 am
Ken Burns speaks at a lectern during the Tribeca Film Festival

The first episode of Burns’s four-part film about Muhammad Ali will air on PBS Sept. 19. (Dia Dipasupil | Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Ken Burns was never a boxing fan, yet when the idea of making “Muhammad Ali” was first suggested, he knew immediately that he had to make it. This was not the norm for Burns, who always has several film projects going at once and often takes months or even years to say yes to a new one.

As you’ll read in this transcript of a recent conversation with Burns, his reasons for making “Muhammad Ali” fit a pattern. Like Jack Johnson and Jackie Robinson, two other athletes he has profiled in film, Ali was a transcendent figure. Better yet, his life and his identity evolved. And his story is an important one in the country’s vexing racial history.

This transcript of the conversation has been condensed and edited lightly for clarity. The first episode of Burns’s four-part film will air on PBS Sept. 19.

Mike Pride: I was a senior in high school in February of 1964, the month that, for me at least, the generation gap began. The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan, and 16 days later Cassius Clay had his first fight with Sonny Liston. I remember being in my barbershop at 17 among a group of men my father’s age, and they all just hated Ali, as did my father.

Ken Burns: He was a Black man who was bragging. That was all it was. On top of that later he joins a separatist Islamic religious cult. Then he refuses induction. It can’t get any worse than that.

Pride: Why Ali, and why now? What do you think his story means to generations that didn’t live through it?

Burns: Why now, you say, but we decided to do this film in 2013 and began work in 2014, before there’s a Black Lives Matter, before there’s a “Me Too,” and all of a sudden it comes out, and it’s resonating with today in spectacular fashion. People infer a kind of purpose to it. History doesn’t repeat itself, but as Mark Twain is purported to have said, it rhymes. 

Any film of mine rhymes in the present. Sarah Burns and David McMahon and I, who are equally the directors of this, set out to do a story that people think they know. There are great documentaries about him – “When We Were Kings” and others that I adored – but those were of a particular fight or his fight with the U.S. government.

We were interested, as we usually are, in a comprehensive look. Who was this person, born in the early 1940s in segregated, Jim Crow Louisville, Kentucky, and who died not that long ago, in 2016, of Parkinson’s disease, as the most beloved man on the planet? And at times in his life, he was the most divisive and the most hated person in large segments of the United States.

Who was he, and how do you get beyond the conventional wisdom, how do you understand the sweet science of boxing with all its brutality? How do you get inside the lights and understand what’s going on?

Read Mike Pride’s review of Ken Burns’s new film, “Muhammad Ali”

Parenthetically, for the film, we had a secret weapon in former champion Michael Bentt. He’s inside the fights, helping us understand not just strategy and tactics, but the psychology of it and the personalities and the hearts of the people involved.

Ali was the greatest athlete of the 20th century, probably the greatest athlete of all time, who intersected with all the great American great themes of his time and ours – about race, about culture, about Black identity, about religion and faith, about politics and war, about his personal relations with women.

Pride: And what did you discover about his complexities?

Burns: For all our presumptions about Ali, the opposite could also be true. He had been bragging horribly, inexcusably, on Joe Frazier before the first fight, but in the post-bout interviews, he is calm, he’s not shucking and trying to pretend that he didn’t lose. He’s talking about loss that everyone has. People lose a loved one, they lose a job, they lose a title, he says, and there’s a cognizance.

As you’ve seen from the very beginning, when he’s a class clown and in a period when no boy would be caught with a purse, he’s wearing a purse to school, and he just had this supreme self-confidence that he’s got some purpose on this earth. He’s barely got the boxing gloves on as a kid, and he’s declaring that he’s going to be the greatest. And here he is just like after the Liston fight: I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I can be who I am. It’s a classic American story about freedom.

It’s also someone who divides even the African American community because most of the civil rights movement is Christian-based, and it’s about integration. He joins an Islamic cult and it’s about separation. 

And yet when he is vindicated by the Supreme Court in the draft case – vindicated, sort of, on a technicality – and inevitably the reporter’s question comes, “What do you think about this system?’ And he goes: “Well, I don’t know who’s going to be assassinated tonight. I don’t know who’s going to be denied justice and equality.” Right then and there, when he has a possible moment of gloating, he thinks about everyone else. He thinks back 350 years to the advent of Black people on this continent, and yet also ahead to people he does not yet know: Rodney King, and Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. And he’s thinking about them, not “I got justice in this case.” He knows that things are not right until this is how things are.

I find him magnificent in those moments.

Pride: How about the boxing side of the story?

Burns: You’ve got two of those fights, the third Frazier fight, and the Rumble in the Jungle, the Foreman fight. The Foreman fight is just one of the great, unbelievable fights of all time. He should not have won, and he did. Nobody but him had figured out how to tame this fighting machine that was George Foreman. 

And then, there’s the third Frazier, the closest thing to death. As Jerry Izenberg (former boxing writer who speaks in the film) said, they are two guys on an iceberg. They’re not fighting for the world championship, they’re fighting for the championship of each other. For each, the other is Ahab’s white whale. It’s such an extraordinary image that Izenberg creates, and you understand just what the stakes were in such an intimate way.

Pride: For decades, boxing provided an arena where the history of race in America played out. Jack London wrote about how Jim Jeffries had to stop Jack Johnson, Richard Wright went to Harlem to gauge public reaction to Joe Louis beating Max Schmeling, James Baldwin dissected the character differences between Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson – why did the lights above the ring also light up the nation’s racial issues?

Burns: I’m not sure, but the heavyweight championship was the province of white men. So when Jack Johnson defeats Tommy Burns – no relation – on Boxing Day in 1908, believe it or not, Dec. 26 – the world is turned upside down. You are saying that, somehow, a Black man could do this. 

The elemental nature of boxing suggests that the strongest person in the world represents the strongest people in the world. So Johnson had to be defeated, and that’s where we get the phrase “Great White Hope,” and he dispatched every great white hope that was sent to him. They called Jim Jeffries out of retirement, and on July 4, 1910, in Reno, in the “Fight of the Century,” as it was called. Johnson easily dispatches Jeffries, and there are white-on-Black riots all around the United States. Many African Americans are murdered because Johnson won.

The next time there’s an African American heavyweight champion, it’s Joe Louis, who has promised to be the anti-Jack Johnson – he has lighter skin – Johnson is black as night – he’s not going to pose for any pictures with white women, he’s not going to gloat over his vanquished opponents. He’s going to be yes, sir, and yes, ma’am. Then you have a series of champions including Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. Everybody thinks Patterson is a good Black man and Liston is a bad Black man, but Liston is better than an unknown Black man who says he’s pretty, who says he’s the greatest, who says he can’t be beaten. They want to have his teeth punched down his throat so he can’t talk. And he beats Liston.

Now we don’t care – I mean, do you know who the heavyweight champion is? It doesn’t matter because it isn’t Muhammad Ali. That’s the point, and neither was George Foreman and neither was Joe Frazier and neither was Floyd Patterson. And Ali was for everyone else in the world who felt oppressed and for people who wished the world would become a better place.

It’s a mythic story, right. It’s a guy with flaws. As the Greeks always told us, Achilles had his heel and his hubris to match his great strength. We don’t shy away from exposing Ali’s flaws, his reprehensible behavior – it’s there, and that’s the way you tell a good story. But it doesn’t in any way diminish, I think. It only enlarges the phenomenal teacher that Muhammad Ali is for the rest of us.

Pride: So in the film, as in his life, he becomes almost universally admired. The torch-lighting in Atlanta – such a simple act – becomes a symbolic moment, bringing the country together. On the other hand, when I saw it again, it seemed nostalgic because of where we are now. What are your thoughts about what happened?

Burns: I think that right now we’re beset by three viruses. One is this novel coronavirus – it’s been around for almost two years. Another is the 402-year-old virus of white supremacy and injustice. That shows no signs or diminishing. And then we live with the age-old human virus of lying and disinformation, paranoia, conspiracy.

These forces have precedents, though certainly not at the highest level of the land, occupying the presidency, and that’s a disturbing aspect of it. I’m doing a film now on the U.S. during the Holocaust – it’s all there. This is what human beings do when they’re not listening to the better angels of their nature. 

You know, I’ve had an epiphany since we last talked. It happened while I was working on “Country Music,” of all things. I’ve been working for 45 years telling stories about the U.S., but I’ve also been telling stories at the same time about us, that is, the lower-case two-letter pronoun “us,” and all the intimacy of “us,” and “we,” and “our.” And all the majesty and the complexity and the contradiction and the controversy of the U.S. I’ve had the great privilege of operating in that space.

And what I learned in “Country Music” is it’s only us. There’s no them. And whenever anyone tells you there’s a them, run away. Unfortunately, making somebody the other, making them an alien, making them a them, is a very human activity. It’s a simple shortcut to the lowest common denominator to explain away or ignore your own feelings or your own complicity, and the difficulty of being alive on this planet at any time. 

So right now we are in a particular place.

At the very end of this film, as Howard Bryant (University of Washington history professor) is talking about the things that can’t be taken away from Muhammad Ali, we cut away to an African American woman protesting and we deliberately don’t tell you what the protest is, I don’t know what the protest is – she’s walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, and she’s wearing a black T-shirt that says “Muhammad Ali.” You see that he still lives, and because of his generosity, he’s earned his place in heaven. As he said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.” Or as we say at the beginning of the film, your room on Earth.

Pride: The film portrays some of the women he mistreated as forgiving him –

Burns: Can we change this because we’re in an age of Me Too, where we’re talking about Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein and Andrew Cuomo? Ali was unfaithful. That’s what he did. He didn’t do anything with anybody where they didn’t want that thing to happen. 

The two wives of the four that we were able to interview both still love him with all their hearts, as devastating as his unfaithfulness was for both. Belinda (now Khalilah) had her own affairs out of revenge or reaction. Veronica Porche was very, very hurt, but she still understands who he was. Two of his kids with Belinda, Hana and Rashida, they were devastated, but their love for him is implicit.

Pride: I think his love life would have would have been covered differently in the media now than it was in his time.

Burns: It was covered. He married Veronica before he left Zaire, and they tried to have a kind of harem, but it never really works out unless you control the beheading.

Pride: How did you decide how much fight footage to use? A lot of his fights were brutal. One of your witnesses to the third Frazier fight said that late in the fight he didn’t want to watch anymore.

Burns: It’s all about calibration. Once you put your shots together, you’ve created a third thing. So you now have an animal that you have to listen to. It tells you. Calibration is the way anything is told. If you’re telling a story to your grandkids around the campfire, you know when to raise your voice and when to lower your voice. What we do is the same laws of storytelling, only at a mammothly complex level, so it’s just getting it right. 

I’m not credited with the script, nor should I be, but you know what my work is in the editing room. I’m touching, rewriting almost every sentence, and I added a sentence about how Ali was a master of the brutal art of boxing. I just needed to say that right up front. “Ladies and gentlemen . . .” It’s like a warning. You’re going to see some tough stuff.

And then you have to be careful. You’ll notice sometimes the footage will cut to a still. 

Pride: I thought you did that effectively, especially at the point where you’re showing how the older Ali is catching punches he would never have taken early in his career.

Burns: You know, we all obey. Journalists obey, Stephen Spielberg obeys – although he can make stuff up – the law of Aristotelean poetics. When you get toward those last fights, you’re not going spend as much time in them as you did in the Rumble in the Jungle or the first Frazier fight. You don’t do that. You’re heading toward the exit.

There’s something painful about it, too. I don’t know if you saw my Hemingway film.

Pride: Yes, I did.

Burns: The scene of him reading the cue cards where he puts in the punctuation, period, comma – and so stilted. That thing went on for twice as long, and everybody loved it, but I said, “Unh-unh! We’re in the last half-hour. This is excruciating.” At some point it becomes voyeuristic porn. I said, “Just cut this out.” What’s there is half the length of that film but much better for only being half the length.

Pride: You’ve spent years thinking about Ali. Why do you think he treated Frazier the way he did?

Burns: Todd Boyd (University of Southern California media studies professor who appears in the film) is the best when he said that in this instance he used his power for evil and not for good. So here is a hero, just like a Greek hero, right, full of all these possibilities but also diminished by the fact that sometimes he misuses those powers.

I think it’s an adjunct of the promotion, him understanding that he can psychologically get to people but losing track of the fact that he can also motivate his opponents with this sort of thing. It’s not about winning or losing. The people in the film talk about him redefining Black masculinity, Black manhood, as Jackie Robinson defined it for the previous generation – stoic, turn the other cheek, though Jackie was a firebrand, too. I think Ali is a new version, and the excesses of it could be that cruelty he displayed in the attempt to sell tickets, you know, to create a real rivalry. 

When he apologized, he said, “Me and Joe was a good show.” But  Frazier never forgave him. I just think Ali understood his position. There was a group of people that he thought he represented, and if he could make his opponent the enemy of that group of people – as he said, the only people who are rooting for Joe Frazier are the white racists. And in some way, he’s right, because the white racists want to shut him up.

Ali’s treating Joe as if he’s the villain of this piece, which he’s not. Not to suggest that Ali’s the villain, but it’s like he says: Boo, hiss, but whatever you do, just buy a ticket.

Pride: I was in the Army for four years beginning in 1966, but I never doubted that Ali did the right thing in refusing the draft. Part of me even wished I had done the same. But I sought a different way out, enlisting after I was drafted in exchange for an assignment that I thought – correctly, as it turned out – would keep me out of Vietnam.

Burns: Tim O’Brien (Vietnam combat veteran and author), in our Vietnam film, said that it was the cowardly thing to do to say yes. In the Ali film, Salim Muwakkil (Chicago journalist) says, “I was in the service at the time, and you think I’d be angry at Ali, but I wasn’t.” We cut from him to three Americans in Vietnam saying, “This is what I’m fighting for. He gets to do this.” They have gotten there, and they realize he knows exactly what’s right: Why are we being sent halfway around the world to kill people who never did anything bad to us? That happens when we’re at home. They kill us just because of the color of our skin.

Pride: Can you share a couple of your own recollections about Ali?

Burns: When I was in college, somebody got ahold of a bootleg 20-minute, 16mm film of all the action from the Rumble in the Jungle. None of us were boxing fans. We were in a film and photography class. But after we turned on the lights, we said, “Wow, let’s look at that again.” I tried to get this footage where, like, he hits Foreman and the sweat would go off like a corona – 360 degrees of this mist. It was just stunning.

And we were, like, exalted, and we were peace-loving hippies at Hampshire College, a hippie school.

You know, he’s followed me all around. I met him once, and it was the only wordless conversation I’ve ever had. 

This is what happened. I was raising money, which is my No. 1 job. I’m like a congressman. It’s in the winter, I’ve got a cold, and I go between appointments to a coffee shop in West Hollywood or L.A., and I order a tea at the counter. I’m waiting for it to come. It’s after the breakfast crowd, and I turn around, and someone has just slipped into a booth, and it’s Muhammad Ali. I don’t remember whether there was anybody with him or not. 

And I looked at him and said without moving my lips, “You’re Muhammad Ali.” And he looked at me and said, “Yes, I am.” And I said, “I’m not going to bother you.” And he said, “You wouldn’t be bothering me.” I just said, without moving my lips, “I love you, Champ.” He said, “I love you, too.” 

And I took my tea and I walked out.

Now I don’t know if those words are made up, but I felt that I could hear him, and I felt that he could hear my thoughts.

At the very end of the film, David Remnick (editor of the New Yorker and author of a book about Ali) says, “He’s a revered figure, almost like the Buddha.” After the interview with Remnick, I told everybody I had this experience that this interview just reminded me of. I mean, I’ve never had a wordless conversation. I know how to mouth the words, “I love you,” but I never opened my lips, I never moved my mouth. I just felt that I said it and he heard it and said it back.

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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.