Muhammad Ali received the Ken Burns treatment with a four-part documentary series, currently airing on PBS and available online through the PBS app, which covers Ali’s legendary career as the three-time world heavyweight champion and anti-war activist.
Burns directed and produced the documentary with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon. The new documentary spans over eight hours and covers Ali’s life from the time he was known as Cassius Clay growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, to the final chapter of his life in which Parkinson’s Disease silenced the once-voluminous gabber.
“There’s so many layers and subtexts to Ali,” said Burns. “He is an epic, almost mythic figure, in which his life and his flaws and his strengths play out on a world stage.”
By 1966, Ali became the highest-paid athlete in the world, yet he still couldn’t eat in many restaurants in parts of America because of the color of his skin.
The documentary includes footage from the second Liston/Ali fight in which Liston went down on a punch that shouldn’t have knocked him out, which generated speculation for more than a half-century that Liston took a dive.
4 rounds, 8 hours
Ali fans won’t learn anything new or something they didn’t already know. However, this is a good documentary for non-boxing fans, and will be a useful tool to teach future generations about Ali’s impact on the world as one of the most famous and most recognizable people in the world. Considering the current politicized climate and growing racial justice movement, the Ali documentary is an important piece in bridging generations that have been fighting for freedom and chance for the last 60 years.
Each of the four parts is titled by boxing rounds. Round One: The Greatest spans 1942-1964, including Ali’s rise at the Rome Olympics in 1960 to winning the heavyweight championship against Liston in 1964. Round Two: What’s My Name? spans 1964-1970, which includes Ali’s conversion to Islam and name change from Clay to Ali, plus losing his championship belts after his refusal to be inducted into the US Army during the Vietnam War and subsequent exile.
Round Three: The Rivalry covers 1970 to 1974 and Ali’s triumphant return to the ring, including his three fights against Joe Frazier. Round Four: The Spell Remains spans 1974 to 2016 and Ali’s rapid decline from greatness as a fighter and the onset of Parkinson’s disease.
Ali in pop culture, busy Burns
The night Ali won the heavyweight title during the first Liston/Ali fight in 1964 became a plot point in One Night in Miami, an Oscar-nominated film by Regina King, which fictionalizes a meeting between Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and James Brown.
Last year, HBO aired a documentary title What’s My Name about Ali, which was produced by LeBron James. Last month, Netflix released Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali, a documentary based on a book by Randy Robert. Blood Brothers covered the friendship and ensuing fallout between Malcolm X and Ali.
It’s been a busy year for Burns. Earlier in 2021, Burns released a documentary on American novelist Earnest Hemingway. In 2019, Burns directed an eight-episode documentary on country music. Burns is best known for his award-winning, nine-part documentary on the Civil War. He also directed Baseball, a nine-episode documentary released in 1994 that covered more than a century of professional baseball. In 2010, Burns released an addendum to Baseball with a 10th episode titled Tenth Inning.