MUHAMMAD ALI Docuseries: An Interview with Ken Burns

MUHAMMAD ALI to Premiere September 19, 2021 on PBS

New Ken Burns Four-Part Series Explores Life of Legendary Boxer

ESPN’s The Undefeated Joins PBS for National Conversation Series on Sports, Race and Culture

Arlington, VA – May 12, 2021 – MUHAMMAD ALI, a new four-part documentary directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, will air on PBS September 19-22, 8:00-10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings). The new series, which was in development for six years, was also written and co-directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon, whose previous collaborations with Burns include THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE (2012), JACKIE ROBINSON (2016) and EAST LAKE MEADOWS: A PUBLIC HOUSINGSTORY (2020). 

The film follows the life of one of the most consequential men of the 20th century, a three-time heavyweight boxing champion who captivated billions of fans with his combination of speed, agility and power in the ring, and his charm, wit and outspokenness outside of it. At the height of his fame, Ali challenged Americans’ racial prejudices, religious biases, and notions about what roles celebrities and athletes play in our society, and inspired people all over the world with his message of pride and self-affirmation. 

Leading up to the September broadcast, Burns will join PBS and The Undefeated, ESPN’s multimedia platform exploring the intersection of sports, race and culture, to hold a series of insightful conversations about sports and race in America. The virtual events, Conversations on Muhammad Ali, will feature sports and entertainment figures, scholars and writers, preview clips from the film, and examine Ali’s life and career in the context of America—and the world—today. People can register for one or more of the events at: PBS Learning Media will also build out full educational materials focusing on the intersection of race and sports in 20th century America to support the film.

As with all Florentine Films productions, an accomplished group of historians, writers and other topic experts provided input on the script and film, including USC professor of media studies Todd Boyd, author Howard Bryant, Washington University history professor Gerald Early, long-time Burns collaborator and author Geoffrey C. Ward, Rutgers journalism professor Khadijah White, MIT history professor Craig Wilder, and writer David ZirinJonathan Eig, a biographer of Ali, was a consulting producer to the film.

Drawing from an extraordinary trove of archival footage and photographs, contemporary music, and the insights and memories of eyewitnesses—including family and friends, journalists, boxers and historians, among others—Burns,Burnsand McMahon have created a sweeping portrait of an American icon. The series details the story of the athlete who called himself—and was considered by many to be—”the greatest of all time” and competed in some of the most dramatic and widely viewed sporting events ever, including “The Fight of the Century” and “The Thrilla in Manila,” both against his great rival Joe Frazier, and “The Rumble in the Jungle,” in which he defeated George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title that was stripped from him seven years earlier. MUHAMMAD ALI also captures Ali’s principled resistance to the Vietnam War, his steadfast commitment to his Muslim faith, and his complex relationships with Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, who profoundly shaped his life and worldview.

“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.”Burns also explored the life of the first African American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, in his 2004 film UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: THE RISE AND FALL OF JACK JOHNSON.

While he is largely celebrated today as an icon of American sport and culture, Ali was not always widely embraced. At times he was reviled by many in American society, especially white Americans and white members of the media, who rejected his faith and feared his involvement with the Nation of Islam. Ali also faced a firestorm of criticism when he said, “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong” and refused induction into the United States Army, citing his religious beliefs—a stance that would result in five years of legal jeopardy and a three-and-a-half-year banishment from boxing. 

“Ali is rightly celebrated for his athleticism in the ring,” said Sarah Burns, “but he was equally heroic in his willingness to stand up for what he believed was right.”

“Ali’s principled opposition to the Vietnam War and deeply affecting message of racial pride were remarkable then and equally so now,” said David 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.”

“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.”

Conversations on Muhammad Ali, presented by PBS and The Undefeated, will take place virtually via Zoom throughout the summer. The hour-long events will each cover a theme from the film and include a discussion with the filmmakers and special guests. To register and for more information, visit: The schedule is as follows.

June 23 at 7:00 PM ET         “Ali the Man” with Ken Burns, Jesse Washington (moderator),

Rasheda Ali Walsh and Howard Bryant

July 19 at 7:00 PM ET“Ali On The World’s Stage” with Ken Burns, Lonnae O’Neal

(moderator), Janet Evans and Todd Boyd

September 9 at 7:00 PM ET  “Ali, Race & Religion” with Ken Burns, Justin Tinsley

(moderator) and Ibtihaj Muhammad

September 14 at 7:00 PM ET “Ali, Activism & The Modern Athlete” with Ken Burns, Raina 

Kelley (moderator) and special guests TBA

“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 andKenBurnsto host this exciting conversation series on the meaning of Ali and his lasting legacy.” 

Ali’s death in June 2016 coincidentally came just weeks after the launch of The Undefeated, and his life, legacy and impact have been a defining theme for its coverage of the intersection of race, sports and culture in America. Utilizing both its own staff writers and a lengthy roster of historians and authors, the site has hosted a wide range of historical analysis on the complex threads of Ali’s life, as well as reporting on the outsized influence he has had on current debates about the role of the Black athlete and activist in the American story. Fittingly, his story is also a cornerstone of The Undefeated’s best-selling young adult book, The Fierce 44: Black Americans Who Shook Up the World.

Ali’s story is full of contradictions. Despite his competitive reputation and ruthless athleticism in the ring, he went on to become a symbol for peace and pacifism. Though committed to a faith that expected obedience and dignified conduct, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wives, at times publicly flaunting his affairs. Ali was a clever showman with an unparalleled genius for promotion and turn of phrase, who occasionally allowed his partners and friends to take advantage of him. He endlessly trumpeted his own greatness as a boxer, but anonymously donated to save a Jewish old age home, made surprise visits to pediatric hospitals and signed autographs for every last fan.

MUHAMMAD ALI includes interviews with Ali’s daughters Hana Ali and Rasheda Ali, his second wife Khalilah Ali, his third wife Veronica Porche, and his brother and confidant Rahaman Ali. Others appearing in the film include activist and former 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 RahmanNew 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.

A production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, D.C., MUHAMMAD ALIwas directed and executive produced by KenBurns, directed, written and produced by SarahBurns and David McMahon, produced by Stephanie Jenkins (THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, JACKIE ROBINSON, EAST LAKE MEADOWS: A PUBLIC HOUSING STORY), co-produced by Tim McAleer (JACKIE ROBINSON, EAST LAKE MEADOWS: A PUBLIC HOUSING STORY) and associate produced by Joe Siegal(WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME, MY FATHER AND ME, MARIANNE AND LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE). Akia Thorpe was the production coordinator. The film was edited by K.A. Miille (WHO KILLED MALCOLM X?, TELL THEM WE ARE RISING: THE STORY OF BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES, THE AFRICAN AMERICANS: MANY RIVERS TO CROSS WITH HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.), Woody Richman (HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, TROUBLE THE WATER, FAHRENHEIT 9/11), Ted Raviv (THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY, JACKIE ROBINSON), and Aljernon Tunsil (FREEDOM SUMMER, THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION, BOSS: THE BLACK EXPERIENCE IN BUSINESS, EAST LAKE MEADOWS: A PUBLIC HOUSING STORY), with assistant editor Samali Bikangaga and apprentice editors Gabrielle Berbey, Franny Bernstein and Shyala Jayasinghe. The film is narrated by Keith David (JAZZ, MARK TWAIN, THE WAR, UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: THE RISE AND FALL OF JACK JOHNSON, JACKIE ROBINSON).Buddy Squires was the cinematographer. Original music was provided by Jahlil Beats. The executive in charge for WETA is John F. Wilson.

MUHAMMAD ALI will be available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, and thePBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV and Chromecast. PBS station members can view the documentary via PBS Passport, as part of a full collection ofKenBurnsfilms. For more information about PBS Passport, visit the PBS Passport FAQ website.

Corporate funding for MUHAMMAD ALI was provided by Bank of America. Major funding was provided by David M. Rubenstein. Major funding was also provided by The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by The Better Angels Society and by its members Alan and Marcia Docter; Mr. and Mrs. Paul Tudor Jones; The Fullerton Family Charitable Fund; Gilchrist and Amy Berg; The Brooke Brown Barzun Philanthropic Foundation, The Owsley Brown III Philanthropic Foundation and The Augusta Brown Holland Philanthropic Foundation; Perry and Donna Golkin; John and Leslie McQuown; John and Catherine Debs; Fred and Donna Seigel; Susan and John Wieland; Stuart and Joanna Brown; Diane and Hal Brierley; Fiddlehead Fund; Rocco and Debby Landesman; McCloskey Family Charitable Trust; Mauree Jane and Mark Perry; and Donna and Richard Strong.


KenBurns, in fullKenneth LaurenBurns, (born July 29, 1953, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.), American documentary director who is known for the epic historical scope of his films and miniseries.

Burnsspent his youth in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father was a professor at the University of Michigan. He received a bachelor’s degree (1975) in film studies and design from Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. After graduating,Burnscofounded Florentine Films, a documentary film company, with cinematographer Buddy Squires and editor Paul Barnes.

His first major project, Brooklyn Bridge (1981), garnered an Academy Award nomination in the documentary category and set the tone for a productive career as a maker of films dealing with American history and culture. His films included The Shakers (1984), The Statue of Liberty (1985), and Huey Long (1985). It wasBurns’s 11-hour 1990 television series, The Civil War, however, that secured his reputation as a master filmmaker.Burnscreated a sense of movement in the still photographs that appeared throughout the film by using what was to become his signature technique of panning the camera over them and zooming in on details. The series won two Emmy Awards and earned record profits.

Burnsthen made a combination of single films, miniseries, and extended series, including the epics Baseball (1994), which won an Emmy, and Jazz (2001). Other works covered Thomas Jefferson, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, boxer Jack Johnson, and feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.Burns’s later documentary series included The War (2007), which focused on World War II veterans from four American towns; The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009); The Tenth Inning (2010), a continuation of his history of baseball; and Prohibition (2011).

Further series included The Dust Bowl (2012); The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014), a chronicle of the careers of U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as that of Eleanor Roosevelt; and Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015), about the history of the eponymous disease and its treatment. Jackie Robinson (2016) chronicled the baseball career and civil rights achievements of its subject; it was codirected by his daughter SarahBurnsand her husband, David McMahon. The 18-hour series The Vietnam War (2017) was epic in its scope, including discussions on the origins of the conflict and its polarizing effect on Americans as well as interviews with both U.S. and Viet Cong soldiers. In 2018Burnscodirected The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science, a film about the world-renowned nonprofit medical institution in Rochester, Minnesota. The following year the eight-part series Country Music debuted.Burnsthen codirected Hemingway (2021), a three-part series that examines the life and work of the literary giant.

Burnsfrequently employed the distinctive voices of well-known actors in the narration of his films and twice collaborated on scores with jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. His documentaries continued to accrue accolades from a variety of film and historical organizations. Many of them appeared on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network, often bringing it a marked increase in viewership when they aired. In 2007Burnssigned an agreement with PBS to produce work for the network well into the next decade.

The Central Park Five (2012) was a departure from the sepia-toned television programs with whichBurnshad become associated. The theatrically released documentary, also codirected with his daughter and her husband, shed new light on a controversial case involving a violent crime committed in New York City in 1989.

2019 Summer TCA Press Tour - Day 7

Photo: Getty Images North America

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