Ken Burns on his latest, “Muhammad Ali”: “What is so interesting is what an avatar of love he was”


For Ken Burns, boxer Muhammad Ali has always been a hero. “I would be happy to sit on a bar stool and chat with someone that he is the greatest athlete of all time,” the filmmaker recently told Salon.

Now that “Muhammad Ali” has made his debut, Burns no longer needs to debate. His PBS film in four parts and over seven hours demonstrates this.

Burns’ take on the iconic boxer is one of many non-fictional examinations of Ali’s life, but his methodical ways of playing out the athlete’s career within the context of American history make his project unique. Burns’ affection, however, is what gives a singular surge of passion and emotionality to this piece.

What moved him, Burns explains, was how Ali’s life intersects with all the important themes that defined the second half of the 20th century, from the role of sport in society, to the role of athletes. expressing about race, war and politics, about a public figure’s faith and religion and how that shapes who they are and how they are treated.

“All of these things that we’re still grappling with now,” Burns explained, “And so he seems to be talking to us. What seems so interesting about this pass is what an avatar of love he was.”

Even so, the film doesn’t shy away from portraying any instances where Ali has used racist tropes to disparage and demoralize his opponents by promoting himself.

Salon spoke to the filmmaker about this and other things that contributed to the making of “Muhammad Ali” and how the process of forming this biography compares to his previous profiles of other athletes, namely the topic from 2005 “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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I have seen most of your filmographies, but this one personally pushed me. I think part of the reason is that I grew up with Muhammad Ali.

My dad told me about the 1960 Olympics. We kind of saw him go up to the championship and fight with it. [Sonny Liston] and from there, because we were on a college campus, we loved it. So despite all the divisions – which are part of history, that many people, not just whites but blacks as well, felt about the way he behaved, his membership in the Nation of Islam, and of course, strike three is its refusal of induction – we loved poetry, we loved impetuosity, self-confidence, assertiveness. And we loved, of course, his dance. So yeah, I grew up with him too.

I want to go back to what you did with Jack Johnson a while ago. You said you made the decision to start working on “Ali” in 2013. But I wonder if doing “Unforgivable Blackness” planted the seed for this project.

We have worked on this for several years. The ending was still pretty well set up on the Idea “Ghost in the house” of what was used in the very last moments of our film on Jack Johnson, to inspire “Muhammad Ali”. And I used to say that Muhammad Ali fought the government for a decade devoted, supposedly, to civil rights. Johnson did all of his work in a decade in which more African Americans were lynched, from 1905 to 1915, than any other 10-year period in US history. So you know, it’s two different things.

And of course when Muhammad Ali caught up with her story and understood how similar it was, it became an inspiration. . . But Jack Johnson was for himself, right? He wanted the same freedom Muhammad Ali wanted. But Muhammad Ali wanted this freedom for everyone. And that’s the big difference.

One of my favorite moments in the film was seeing footage where, after the Supreme Court freed Ali from prison for a technicality, a reporter put a microphone in his face and said, ” What do you think of this system? Where he could’ve walked into a dance, a poem, a jubilation, whatever it was, he said very thoughtfully, “Well, I don’t know who’s going to be murdered tonight. I don’t know who’s going to see himself. deny justice or equality. ” It’s just an amazing thing. He’s still in his twenties.

He looks at this huge, convincing and unanimous victory that he has just won, and what a great relief. And he answers for everyone over the past 350 years, black Americans who have suffered on this continent, including Emmett Till, who was his age and whose photos he has seen, his body tortured and mutilated. . . And I’m just blown away by that kind of meaning.

. . . I think it starts to dissolve over time, as we’re just starting to appreciate it. And then of course he gave us so many boxing masterpieces.

Yes, let’s talk about it. What’s unique about this movie is that you let the fight and the footage tell the story. A lot of the music in the movie, and I’m not talking about the soundtrack, I mean the actual visual melody, is seeing that footage.

When you first compiled all of your archival material, was there a discussion where you decided, “Let’s let this unfold, so people can actually see these moments that help define who this person is ”?

It is a calibration process. So, a Frazier fight has been around for two years in the editing room – first as a big, fat, messy untrained blob, then goes down and maybe gets too short. Or maybe we get some new information that in the 14th round it happened.

And if you could watch the last month of editing, it would be like watching the grass grow. But the pace and the pace, I think. . . all art forms, said my brother, when he dies and goes to heaven wants to be music. So all the analogies in the editing room are all musical, like “Could you hold this other time?” Two more times? . . . Just so that receiving this information for someone who gave us their precious attention, we wouldn’t dishonor or spoil it, or let it slip out of the story.

A lot of people in their own way, as much as they feel for someone they don’t know personally, have very strong feelings for Muhammad Ali that the movie is about, and you talk a lot about the love that emerges for him. .

There is also a lot of evidence in the film of him using racist tropes to promote himself and disparage other black athletes. How do you approach that as a filmmaker, and did that aspect of Ali impact your personal feelings, the more you dig into that aspect of his personality?

You know what? It doesn’t matter how much love I have for him, or how much contempt I have for him. Like I said before, it’s important for us to lift the carpet and sweep up the dirt. Our last movie was about this toxic male macho guy called Ernest Hemingway, who you then learn in our work that he’s very fluid between the sexes and experiments in ways that aren’t that crazy today, but that the were certainly 100 years ago.

Ditto with Mohamed Ali. What makes a good story is knowing that Achilles had his heel and his pride, as well as his great strength.

[USC professor] Todd Boyd puts it best, when it comes to Joe Frazier, when Ali uses language a white racist would use against a black man. It’s the ultimate, hip black man who does this, right? And [Boyd] just shakes his head and says, “I think in this case he used his powers for evil rather than good.”

And then you say, oh yeah: Muhammad Ali is like a superhero like those smelly Marvel characters aren’t. He’s a real guy in front of us whose life is like a Greek mythological story, like Achilles who plays strength and weakness before our eyes. Our own lives are his life, but written much, much smaller, which is why I think everyone is drawn to him, even though you come out hating him for it.

No one is ever a thing. And that’s the big mistake we make, especially in a binary computer world and kind of shallow media culture, where it’s just on or off, black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor, male or female. , red state or blue state. It is a dialectic that does not exist in real life.

Because he lived history for many people, Muhammad Ali carries with him a great symbolism. This is true of a lot of sports icons, as you know, having produced films about Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson and, of course, your baseball series. But I wanted to ask you if you think there is a difference in the weight of what Ali symbolizes, based on the fact that he was a boxer?

Yes, I am not a boxing fan. But I think the best description is in Episode 3 at the end of Frazier’s third fight, when Jerry Izenberg, obviously remembering what he wrote in his column at the time, talks about this: They don’t get together. not fight for the WBA championship, they don’t do the world championship championship. It’s each other’s championship, and they’re two men on the ice floe, and each other is Ahab’s white whale.

This tells you everything you need to know about boxing.

Mohamed Ali “is currently streaming on PBS.org.


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