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Ken Burns Promises ‘Warts and All’ Look at Muhammad Ali

Ken Burns documentary Muhammad Ali on PBS
(Image credit: PBS)

Muhammad Ali, a Ken Burns documentary about the famed fighter, airs on PBS Sept. 19-22. The project began in 2014, said Burns during a Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour session. He mentioned a sign in his editing room that says, “It’s complicated,” and said it applied to his latest project. 

“We’re interested in human beings and their complications,” Burns said. 

Besides boxing, the film touches on civil rights, politics, war, faith and “the definition of Blackness in the country,” said Burns. “What we’re always drawn to are very, very complicated stories.”

Burns’ films include Baseball, The Civil War, The Roosevelts and Country Music. 

He made Muhammad Ali with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. 

Burns promises a “warts and all” project, quoting Ali’s daughter Rasheda, that touches not only Ali’s role as a sports and cultural touchstone, but on his philandering and inconsistent role in his children’s lives. 

Rasheda Ali said her father was “onstage” when he was in the ring. “He pretty much put on a show for all the people who tuned in,” she said, and was “sweet and cuddly” at home. “Daddy was a gentle giant for sure,” she added. 

Burns said that “non-performing Ali is available all the way through” the documentary. 

Asked about criticism that he, as a white man, has such a large role in documenting and sharing American history, Burns said he applauded PBS “for the steps they’ve taken,” in terms of funding diverse filmmaker initiatives and hiring a senior VP focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. He added, “Throughout my professional life I’ve tried to tell the story of this country in an inclusive way.”

Burns noted that 40% of the staff on the Ali project are people of color, and 53% are women. That was also the case 25 years ago, he added. 

"We, of course, encourage others to tell their own stories, and we celebrate that," he said. "But I do not accept that only people of a particular background can tell certain stories about our past, particularly in the United States of America."

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.