Ken Burns is reentering boxing’s storytelling ring, and it’s another iconic heavyweight who’s his muse this time around.
The acclaimed documentarian will debut a four-part, eight-hour documentary on PBS chronicling the life of Muhammad Ali, the television program distributor announced.
Simply billed as “Muhammad Ali,” the series will air on consecutive nights on September 19 to 22 from 8 to 10 p.m. ET and cover the three-time heavyweight champion and civil rights activist’s storied life and career.
Leading up to the PBS premiere, Burns will join ESPN’s The Undefeated for a cross-platform multimedia promotion by discussing the intersection of sports, race and culture in America.
“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.”
In addition to his diverse background documenting baseball, as well as the Second World War, Burns is best known in boxing for his exploration of the first African-American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in his 2004 film “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.”
Produced by Florentine Films, “Muhammad Ali” has been in development for the last six years, and it's written and co-directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon.
“Ali is rightly celebrated for his athleticism in the ring, but he was equally heroic in his willingness to stand up for what he believed was right,” said Sarah Burns.
“Ali’s principled opposition to the Vietnam War and deeply affecting message of racial pride were remarkable then and equally so now,” said 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.”
The documentary will include interviews with a slew of people closest to Ali, as detailed in a press release. They include: Ali’s daughters Hana Ali and Rasheda Ali, his second wife Khalilah Ali, his third wife Veronica Porche, and his brother and confidant Rahaman Al, basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, boxing promoter Bob Arum, anthropologist Donna Auston, childhood friend Vic Bender, former heavyweight boxing champion and playwright Michael Bentt, author Todd Boyd, sportswriter Howard Bryant, law professor and co-founder of the Weather Underground Bernardine Dohrn, historian Gerald Early, journalist and Ali biographer Jonathan Eig, poet and activist Nikki Giovanni, former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, childhood friend Alice Houston, sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, professor of religion Sherman Jackson, former Georgia State Senator Leroy Johnson, friend and business manager Gene Kilroy, sportswriter Dave Kindred, boxing promoter Don King, lawyer Tom Krattenmaker, sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, lawyer Michael Meltsner, novelist Walter Mosley, journalist Salim Muwakkil, long-time friend Abdul Rahman, New Yorker editor David Remnick, photographer Lowell Riley, historian Randy Roberts, childhood friend Owen Sitgraves, friend Victor Solano, Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka, writer Gay Talese, writer Quincy Troupe, and sportswriter Dave Zirin.
“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.”
Manouk Akopyan is a sports journalist, writer and broadcast reporter. He’s also a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and MMA Journalists Association. He can be reached on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube at @ManoukAkopyan, via email at manouk[dot]akopyan[at]gmail.com or on www.ManoukAkopyan.com