For legendary documentary director Ken Burns, profiling Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest athlete of all time, posed unique challenges and took seven years. One of the most difficult was how Burns, his daughter Sarah, and son-in-law David McMahon could produce a comprehensive documentary about not only Ali’s boxing career, but also his political activism, religious background and personal life.
“It’s a seven-year labor of love and what we wanted to do,” Burns said of his upcoming four-part PBS documentary series “Muhamad Ali,” which premieres on September 19. “We wanted to make nut soup from his birth and childhood in Jim Crow separated Louisville, Kentucky, until his death just five years ago from Parkinson’s disease.”
Burns spoke to CBS News Washington chief correspondent Major Garrett for this week’s episode of “The Takeout” podcast.
Ali, a three-time heavyweight boxing world champion, relied on his unique boxing style and famous rhyming threats – “I’m going to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. His hands can’t touch what his eyes can not see “- to impress the sports world. He won Olympic gold at 18, just three months away from high school.
The first time Ali won the title, against Sonny Liston in 1964, it was under his first name, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. He was 22 years old, the youngest title holder in history. Soon after, Ali changed his name to Muhammad Ali, the name given to him by the leader of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam and Ali’s spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad.
“I think he may be the greatest athlete of all time,” Burns said. “I think if Michelangelo was here today and about to sculpt David, he would say, ‘Maybe I should do Muhammad Ali.’ Just a beautiful human specimen who is also funny, who is gregarious, who is picky, who you know, passionate about life and is an inspiration to this day for people concerned with social justice. ”
Born Cassius Clay, the boxer became a Muslim in 1961, joined the Nation of Islam and later changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Burns said his film is about Ali’s journey to freedom and his struggle to create his own identity.
“It’s interesting – as he announces the name change, no one will take it.” Burns said, adding that some in the media, other boxers and the public continued to call him Cassius Clay. “People change their names, that’s what happens. [society] wouldn’t take it because it’s a black man doing it. ”
When Ali refused to join the US Army after being drafted into the Vietnam War, claiming he was a conscientious objector and fighting against his religion, he was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and of his heavyweight title. He was forced out of the boxing ring for three years until the Supreme Court overturned his escape conviction.
“It cuts across all the issues of the last half of the 20th century,” Burns said, explaining why it was so important to document Ali’s entire life. “This is the role of sport in society, this is the role of black athletes in sport, this is the nature of black masculinity and manhood. This is about the civil rights movement, not as a monolithic thing, but factions and interests.It’s about politics, war, sex, faith, religion, Islam, all these things and all these things that we face today .
Ali’s fights after returning to the ring were often global media events with huge ticket sales and massive closed-circuit audiences crammed into theaters. Among the famous fights: three against Joe Frazier, one against George Foreman and two against Leon Spinks. Ali won the heavyweight title a second time in an upheaval against Foreman in 1974. He lost the title in 1978 to Spinks, an unrecognized challenger. Seven months later, Ali fought Spinks again and regained the title for a third time, a record.
Burns also spoke about his directing process and how every documentary he has made contains unique limitations and challenges.
“Every movie is a million problems… if you see them in a derogatory way, you’re lost,” Burns said. “But if you see them as something, friction to be overcome, they just become irritations like in an oyster that ends up turning into a pearl. And you hope and we hope that when the movies are over, they will be pearls.”
Burns on the challenges of cinema: “Every movie has a million problems … if you see them pejoratively, you are lost. But if you see them as something, friction to overcome, they just become irritations like in an oyster that ends up turning into an oyster. pearl. And you and we hope that when the movies are over, they will be pearls. ”
On Ali’s position during the civil rights movement and how he tried to capture her in his series: “Each of us is an individual person. So the civil rights movement has as many points of view as there are people involved or even people who react to it in one way or another. And so we, in this story, touch on a lot of those dynamics. And it’s not something that’s fixed. It’s fluid. It’s like his faith is fluid, and he’s growing more and more expansive. . ”
On Ali’s bravado as a boxer and hostA: “No one was as good at promoting as he was. And he knew just the right word to say how to get under his opponent’s skin, how to present every fight as some kind of drama with him in mind … the the fights were like the collected works of William Shakespeare. He made himself the main character. He made himself Hamlet or Macbeth, or whatever, you know, King Lear in all the fights he did . And he did it with a genius that we just shake their heads again that no one can do that today. No one understands that. ”
On Ali’s legacy: “It cuts across all the issues of the last half of the 20th century. It’s the role of sport in society, it’s the role of black athletes in sport, it’s the nature of masculinity and virility It is about the civil rights movement, not as a monolithic thing, but as many tussles and attractions of various factions and interests. It is about politics, war, sex, faith, religion, Islam, all these things and all these things that we’re dealing with today. ”
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