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MUHAMMAD ALI, a new four-part documentary directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, will air on PBS September 19-22, 8:00-10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings). The new series, which was in development for six years, was also written and co-directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon, whose previous collaborations with Burns include THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE (2012), JACKIE ROBINSON (2016) and EAST LAKE MEADOWS: A PUBLIC HOUSINGSTORY (2020).
The film follows the life of one of the most consequential men of the 20th century, a three-time heavyweight boxing champion who captivated billions of fans with his combination of speed, agility and power in the ring, and his charm, wit and outspokenness outside of it. At the height of his fame, Ali challenged Americans’ racial prejudices, religious biases, and notions about what roles celebrities and athletes play in our society, and inspired people all over the world with his message of pride and self-affirmation.
Leading up to the September broadcast, Burns will join PBS and The Undefeated, ESPN’s multimedia platform exploring the intersection of sports, race and culture, to hold a series of insightful conversations about sports and race in America. The virtual events will feature sports and entertainment figures, scholars and writers, preview clips from the film, and examine Ali’s life and career in the context of America—and the world—today. PBS LearningMedia will also build out full educational materials focusing on the intersection of race and sports in 20th century America to support the film.
As with all Florentine Films productions, an accomplished group of historians, writers and other topic experts provided input on the script and film, including USC professor of media studies Todd Boyd, author Howard Bryant, Washington University history professor Gerald Early, long-time Burns collaborator and author Geoffrey C. Ward, Rutgers journalism professor Khadijah White, MIT history professor Craig Wilder, and writer David Zirin. Jonathan Eig, a biographer of Ali, was a consulting producer to the film.
Drawing from an extraordinary trove of archival footage and photographs, contemporary music, and the insights and memories of eyewitnesses—including family and friends, journalists, boxers and historians, among others—Burns, Burns and McMahon have created a sweeping portrait of an American icon. The series details the story of the athlete who called himself—and was considered by many to be—“the greatest of all time” and competed in some of the most dramatic and widely viewed sporting events ever, including “The Fight of the Century” and “The Thrilla in Manila,” both against his great rival Joe Frazier, and “The Rumble in the Jungle,” in which he defeated George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title that was stripped from him seven years earlier. MUHAMMAD ALI also captures Ali’s principled resistance to the Vietnam War, his steadfast commitment to his Muslim faith, and his complex relationships with Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, who profoundly shaped his life and worldview.
“Muhammad Ali was the very best at what he did,” said Ken Burns. “He was arguably America’s greatest athlete, and his unflinching insistence that he be unabashedly himself at all times made him a beacon for generations of people around the world seeking to express their own humanity.” Burns also explored the life of the first African American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, in his 2004 film UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: THE RISE AND FALL OF JACK JOHNSON.
While he is largely celebrated today as an icon of American sport and culture, Ali was not always widely embraced. At times he was reviled by many in American society, especially white Americans and white members of the media, who rejected his faith and feared his involvement with the Nation of Islam. Ali also faced a firestorm of criticism when he said, “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong” and refused induction into the United States Army, citing his religious beliefs—a stance that would result in five years of legal jeopardy and a three-and-a-half-year banishment from boxing.
“Ali is rightly celebrated for his athleticism in the ring,” said Sarah Burns, “but he was equally heroic in his willingness to stand up for what he believed was right.”
“Ali’s principled opposition to the Vietnam War and deeply affecting message of racial pride were remarkable then and equally so now,” said David McMahon. “His actions and words speak to his character and also to his influence as an athlete who used his celebrity to speak out about injustices that he could not tolerate.”
“Muhammad Ali is a national icon whose life and legacy are woven into the fabric of American history,” said Sylvia Bugg, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager, General Audience Programming at PBS. “PBS is committed to sharing stories that deepen understanding and reflect a diversity of perspectives, and we’re thrilled to bring this extraordinary biopic to our audiences this fall.”
“Muhammad Ali remains one of the most iconic figures in American history. He has been studied and modeled and quoted extensively, and his life’s story is central to understanding the modern Black athlete and this period of activism and social change that The Undefeated has been privileged to chronicle,” said Raina Kelley, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of ESPN’s The Undefeated. “We are proud to collaborate with PBS and Ken Burns to host this exciting conversation series on the meaning of Ali and his lasting legacy.”
Ali’s death in June 2016 coincidentally came just weeks after the launch of The Undefeated, and his life, legacy and impact have been a defining theme for its coverage of the intersection of race, sports and culture in America. Utilizing both its own staff writers and a lengthy roster of historians and authors, the site has hosted a wide range of historical analysis on the complex threads of Ali’s life, as well as reporting on the outsized influence he has had on current debates about the role of the Black athlete and activist in the American story. Fittingly, his story is also a cornerstone of The Undefeated’s best-selling young adult book, The Fierce 44: Black Americans Who Shook Up the World.
Ali’s story is full of contradictions. Despite his competitive reputation and ruthless athleticism in the ring, he went on to become a symbol for peace and pacifism. Though committed to a faith that expected obedience and dignified conduct, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wives, at times publicly flaunting his affairs. Ali was a clever showman with an unparalleled genius for promotion and turn of phrase, who occasionally allowed his partners and friends to take advantage of him. He endlessly trumpeted his own greatness as a boxer, but anonymously donated to save a Jewish old age home, made surprise visits to pediatric hospitals and signed autographs for every last fan.