Muhammad Ali Will Be the Subject of Ken Burns’ Newest Documentary Series

Earlier this week, Brother Ali expressed his belief that more of America’s Muslims should be identified by and celebrated in the media, particularly in an era when Islamophobia is so present in the U.S. He mentioned Muhammad Ali by name, calling him a leader whose role as a Black Muslim goes unrecognized far too often. Ali – the iconic boxing champion who became vilified by the U.S. government after refusing to fight in the Vietnam War based on his religious beliefs – passed away in 2016, leaving behind one of the greatest legacies in popular culture. Now, his life and legacy will be examined by Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns.


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Known for his archival approach to documentaries, using old photographs and footage to bring bygone eras to life, Burns has in the past created his signature episodic documentaries center around sports and sports figures. 1994’s Baseball won the 1995 Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Series, while 2005’s Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is considered to be the preeminent look at the life, tribulations, and accomplishments of one of America’s greatest boxers. As recently as 2016, Burns focused on yet another Black athlete, documenting Jackie Robinson and the historic changes he brought to baseball.

As reported by Shadow & Act, PBS has announced that Muhammad Ali will get the “Ken Burns treatment” in a four-hour film aired in two parts. Though the film won’t be released until 2021, Burns and his collaborators on the film have already released statements about why Ali was chosen as their next focus. “[Ali] arrived at exactly the right moment, amidst the tumult and upheaval of the 1960s, and he shaped his times with his powerful voice, mesmerizing presence, and achievements in the ring,” said Mr. Burns. “But beyond the astonishing athletic gifts and mountain of charisma, there’s a very complex, dynamic man whose life story has yet to receive the comprehensive treatment it deserves.”

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His daughter Sarah, with whom he has worked on previous films, echoed the sentiment, saying “Muhammad Ali’s passing last year gave us reason to celebrate his boxing feats as well as his contributions as an ambassador for human rights, and as a voice and symbol of pacifism.” She also made mention of his Muslim faith, adding “it’s easy to forget how divisive a figure he was, proudly associating with the Nation of Islam, refusing induction into the Army before the Vietnam War had become deeply unpopular.” That’s why, she says, the goal of the film is to ” get beyond the archetypes and examine who and what influenced his choices, and how he maintained the courage of his convictions when those choices seemed to go against the tide.”