MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Some people really need no introduction, especially a man who already staked his claim to be known as the greatest.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MUHAMMAD ALI: You know how great I am. I don't have to tell you about my strategy. I'll - here, let my trainer tell you. Bundini, come here. Bundini, tell them. What are we going to do?
DREW BUNDINI BROWN: We going to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
MUHAMMAD ALI AND DREW BUNDINI BROWN: Ah.
BUNDINI BROWN: Rumble, young man, rumble.
MUHAMMAD ALI AND DREW BUNDINI BROWN: Ah.
MARTIN: Now, you might think you know all there is to know about the icon, activist and heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali. But in his new four-part series for PBS, documentarian Ken Burns puts fresh eyes on this well-known story. Burns co-directed the series with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon. And when we talked recently, Ken Burns told me what they set out to do with this project.
KEN BURNS: Sarah and Dave and I were interested in a deep, deep dive that's the arc of his whole life. That is to say, his birth and childhood in Jim Crow segregated Louisville, Ky., to his death just five years ago, in 2016, from Parkinson's, just outside Phoenix, Ariz., and all that went in between, not just the boxing - the collected works of William Shakespeare, I call them, the best matches - but the personal life and also his journey in faith. A lot of things that we interpret as political on the part of Muhammad Ali were, in fact, decisions of faith. And because it was a Black man doing it in America, it - you know, like refusing the draft, it's seen as a political gesture, a kind of middle finger to America, when, in fact, what he's doing is acting out a deeply held religious belief, about conscientious - wanting conscientious objector status.
MARTIN: Well, you know, that is - I think that's really an important point that you make clear early on in the film, that he's this kind of beloved, cuddly bear figure now. But he was tremendously controversial in his lifetime. For much of his career, his beliefs and the actions he took very much dictated, you know, the course of his career, in some cases. I mean, he had to take a five-year - he was suspended for five years at the height of his career because of his beliefs. Some people have compared Ali to modern-day athletes like Colin Kaepernick or LeBron James. How does that land with you?
BURNS: Well, I think they all stand on his shoulders of the kind of - I mean, this is a film about freedom. It's a film about courage. It's a film about love. He dies the most beloved person on the planet. You want to find out why that's the case.
It's about freedom. And it's a particularly difficult equation for a Black person in America trying to escape the specific gravity of the injustices that are visited daily upon Black people. But he does. And he doesn't forget where he came from. And he tries to bring along as many people as possible. It's about courage in the ring but also in his choice not to do - go to the Vietnam War. And all of this intersects with so many things - the role of sports in society, the role of Black athletes in society, the nature of Black manhood and masculinity, civil rights not as a one thing, but as an ever-changing many things with different dimensions, race, the age-old American question, war, politics, sex, faith, religion.
I mean, all of the things we're talking about now, but he's living it and intersecting with it. So it's no wonder that he's reviled. But sometimes when people say he was so divisive, I kind of think maybe we were divisive. And he was himself, making mistakes. You know, this is a big, larger-than-life figure with great, great qualities. He's the greatest athlete of the 20th century and probably of all time. I can have that barroom argument. But he also brings along with him glaring, glaring faults, which he also, in the course of his life, to his ever-loving credit, tries to address and tries to atone for.
MARTIN: Well, there really were two sides to him. On the one hand, people really did love him. I mean, they really did love him. But on his less attractive side, Ali referred to one of his opponents, Joe Frazier, as a gorilla, a phrase which you would assume he knew was commonly used as a racist epithet. And then there was his friendship with Malcolm X, a relationship that deteriorated after Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam over disagreements with its leader, Elijah Muhammad. And then when Malcolm was assassinated, Ali said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALI: Malcolm X and anybody else who attacks or talks about attacking Elijah Muhammad will die. No man can oppose the message of almighty God verbally or physically and get away with it.
MARTIN: It's kind of jarring to hear that.
BURNS: Yeah. This abandonment of Malcolm X is pretty hard to parse. I mean, he was ordered by the Nation of Islam to just disavow him. He - Malcolm X had been kicked out for some intemperate marks he made about the assassination of John Kennedy. But Malcolm X was also leading things in a political direction. And Elijah Muhammad wanted to keep it kind of separate and building communities and kind of discipline, even though Malcolm was also noticing corruption within the organization. And Elijah Muhammad was accused of impregnating many of his associates.
But the young Muhammad Ali had finally found - or the young Cassius Clay had finally found some foundation in which he could deal with the world that was so confounding him - you know, Emmett Till, whose open casket just horrified him; he was almost the same age - his father's rage at not being treated as an equal painter and forced to paint signs just because of the color of his skin. And I think the Nation of Islam provided this foundation. So when they kicked Malcolm X out, they asked him to sort of sever his ties. Malcolm was not just a friend but a mentor and a teacher. And it's a very sad, sad thing. And then he says this horrible thing when he dies.
I also think, here's a 22-year-old kid who's also terrified if - what if he speaks out against them, which he doesn't want to do? Does he also now think that he will have the same fate? Because, as we all know, Malcolm X was assassinated, murdered by members of the Nation of Islam. So I'm not trying to excuse him...
BURNS: ...At all. All three of these things - separating from Malcolm X, the intemperate, horrible remarks about Joe Frazier and other opponents and his infidelity - are all things he addressed in his later life, publicly expressed regret for, tried to work on. So you see him as this - somebody, at least, aware and trying to atone for some of these things.
MARTIN: Many of your films are about big themes, like World War II, the Civil War, baseball. And they're also - you've also done a number of remarkable films about individuals. But at their core, they're really about us, aren't they? So what do you think this film tells us about ourselves?
BURNS: Well, you know, that's interesting, Michel. You know, I've said that I've been making films for almost 50 years about the U.S. but also about us. That is to say the lowercase, two-letter plural pronoun - and so all of the intimacy of us and all of the majesty and the complexity and the contradiction and even the controversy of the U.S. And so people often say, well, what do you want people to take away? And all I want them to take away is whatever they feel because we're presenting something that is ultimately complex and irresolvable.
The people closest to us remain inscrutable in some ways. So how do we presume to go back 50, 60 years and contain a biography or a - 250 or 300 years; I'm finishing a film on Benjamin Franklin - and pretend to know about them? What these lives do is set in motion important questions about the U.S. and important questions about us. And I will be content to sort of watch and try to contain the echoes or the feedback that takes place as these questions rebound off the U.S. and rebound off us.
MARTIN: That was filmmaker Ken Burns. His new four-part documentary series, which he co-directed along with Sarah Burns and David McMahon, premieres on PBS today. It's called "Muhammad Ali." Ken Burns, thank you so much for joining us.
BURNS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.