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An inside look at Ken Burns' latest film 'Muhammad Ali'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: And now a behind-the-scenes look at how documentarian Ken Burns makes his films and a look at the place where he's been doing that work for four decades.

Jeffrey Brown visited Burns at his studio to talk about his latest documentary, "Muhammad Ali," which premieres this Sunday on PBS and airs over four nights, and the larger context and conflicts now in telling America's story in a time of racial reckoning.

This report is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: So, 42 years? I mean, was the original idea just to escape?

Ken Burns, Documentary Filmmaker: Just go someplace where I could live for nothing.

I thought that becoming a documentary filmmaker in American history on PBS was taking a vow of anonymity and poverty.

Jeffrey Brown: It's worked out a bit differently for Ken Burns. And many years later, he's still at work at his home, office, production house in rural Walpole, New Hampshire.

A typical day here includes a walk with dog Chester, on this day joined by Willa and Lily, the youngest of his four daughters.

In pandemic times, most of his staff is remote, working on multiple films, an ever-growing story of American history and culture.

Narrator: At 10:26 p.m. on January 28, 1974.

Jeffrey Brown: The latest, a major 20th century figure who not only changed sports history, but transcended it in ways few, if any, athletes ever have, Muhammad Ali.

Ken Burns: There's so many layers and subtexts to him. He is an epic, almost mythic figure, in which his life and his flaws and his strengths play out on a world stage.

Man: Mr. Clay.

MUHAMMAD ALI: Muhammad Ali, sir.

Man: Mr. Clay...

Muhammad Ali: Muhammad Ali, sir.

Man: ... or Mr. Muhammed Ali, either one.

Muhammad Ali: Just Muhammad Ali, sir.

Man: When you appeared before this commission before, if I recall correctly, you said you were the people's champion?

Muhammad Ali: Yes, sir.

Man: Do you think that you're acting like a people's champion?

Muhammad Ali: Yes, sir.

Jeffrey Brown: What does a subject have to have for you to want to take it on?

Ken Burns: You know, all of the subjects have been in American history.

But I'm only a filmmaker. I'm interested in stories. And, sometimes, it takes me 10 years to go yep to something I'm thinking about. With something like Muhammad Ali, it's a nanosecond.

Jeffrey Brown: The Louisville childhood of Cassius Clay, an almost accidental introduction to boxing.

Muhammad Ali: I'm ready now. I'm tired of waiting for this fight.

Jeffrey Brown: The brash young man talking, talking, talking of his looks and talents.

Muhammad Ali: People say amateur. I held my hands low. I leaned back. I'm still pretty.

Jeffrey Brown: The champion who joined the Nation of Islam, refused to fight in Vietnam, was stripped of his crown and faced jail, until the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned his conviction for evading the draft.

It can be hard to remember how despised he was at some point.

Ken Burns: I think it was important to understand what a divisive character he was.

He was redefining Black manhood for a new generation. Cassius Clay, and then Muhammad Ali, burst on the scene, driving everyone crazy because he wasn't behaving the way a Black man was supposed to behave. And that's part of his genius and his gift.

Narrator: "I fit my religion to do whatever I wanted. I did things that were wrong."

Jeffrey Brown: The flaws are on display, including at times his treatment of women and cruelty to several of his opponents. But he is here, as he called himself, the greatest, not only as a boxer fighting epic battles with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, but as a religious man and citizen deeply engaged with the biggest issues of his day.

Rasheda Ali, Daughter of Muhammad Ali: Daddy said that: I'm bigger than boxing.

Jeffrey Brown: For his daughter, Rasheda Ali, who appears throughout the film, the key was capturing her father in full, including his own evolution.

Ahmed Rashid: My dad was not just a boxer. We all know he did other things. But this was a documentarian that wanted to really address his whole entire life.

And those features, as a father, as a Muslim, and as a civil rights activist, as a humanitarian, those were important to me, because those are the features that are going to transcend into history as part of my dad's legacy.

Howard Bryant, Writer: Muhammad Ali was an activist who fought to reach us a certain way and to move America in a certain way, to move individuals in a certain way: I'm going to take this path. I believe that I'm right. And even if I'm not right, I'm still me.

Jeffrey Brown: That sense of Ali being so tied to complex issues of American life is clearly what most appealed to Burns.

Ken Burns: It is hard to wrestle a complex story to the ground. In fact, in my editing house, which has been closed since COVID, I have a neon sign in cursive, lowercase, that says, "It's complicated."

There's not a filmmaker on earth that, when the scene works, you don't want to touch it. It's fine. Leave it alone. But we're always finding contradictory information.

Muhammad Ali: We believe in obeying the laws of the land.

Jeffrey Brown: Just one of the many complexities in Ali's life, his Islamic faith and loyalty to the controversial Nation of Islam.

Ken Burns: The nuances of his joining the Nation of Islam, trying to distinguish it from Islam, see it as a sect, understand his relationship to it, understand its flaws, the things that were attractive to him, the way in which it operated in opposition to a civil rights movement sort of focused on integration and expansion of rights, rather than separation and kind of do for self.

And these are nuances of just one of the many threads and storylines that operate in his life.

Narrator: His success in the ring and outspokenness beyond it had won him an enormous following.

Jeffrey Brown: In "Muhammad Ali," race is inevitably at the heart of the story.

Many of the on-camera scholars and commentators, as well as members of the production team, are Black.

Wole Soyinka, Poet: It was liberation time, and Muhammad Ali was a figure of liberation.

Jeffrey Brown: The three lead filmmakers, Burns, his daughter Sarah, and her husband, David McMahon, are white.

We are in a time, as you know, where people are questioning who tells the stories, what stories get told. Can a white man, you in this case, tell a Black story, Muhammad Ali or others?

Ken Burns: I have been interested in American history since I was a little boy, passionately interested in it. And I have been trying to investigate all of its aspects.

Inevitably, I come upon the question of race. I can't avoid it. It has to be part of the story. But let's also say that what we have to do is set up a situation in which there are lots of different perspectives, lots of different voices get to tell lots of different stories. And the more stories we have -- I mean, think about the reverse of that.

If you were to proscribe that, then that would also resegregate the telling of stories in a way that we wouldn't want to do.

Jeffrey Brown: But the critique has gone further.

Last year, a much-publicized essay by filmmaker Grace Lee called for more diversity of stories and storytellers at PBS, citing its dependence on -- quote -- "one white male filmmaker and the amount of hours, financial support, and marketing devoted to one man's lens on America."

A prominent group of filmmakers supported Lee with its own letter to PBS this spring, again highlighting Burns' prominence.

Ken Burns: I think it's because the films that we have done have been so popular and so visible.

We also agree with the intentions of that protest, and we know our network does, too. And we want to work with them and have worked within our own team and with the network to help. So we all have to do the task. We all have an obligation to be better. And I want to be part of that.

And let's just remember that, when you look at me, you're looking at a team that, say for the Muhammad Ali film, is 40 percent African-American and 54 percent women on the main nucleus of the team that actually made this film.

Jeffrey Brown: Has the criticism, so personal, bothered you?

Ken Burns: Not at all. I didn't take it personally at all. I understood that it was a for example.

And given the fact that the portion of PBS money in my budgets is relatively small, I'm making room for them to be able to fund others, and that I go out and fund from individuals and corporations and foundations, all of whom are helping us now address that situation.

So this, to me, has been a network that's always been a little bit better than any other place, and can get even that much better. And I want to be part of that effort to be better.

Jeffrey Brown: For her part, PBS CEO and president Paula Kerger told the Television Critics Association in August, PBS has fallen short in some aspects of diversity.

She announced the hiring of a new executive to oversee change, and unveiled a multiyear $11 million commitment to -- quote -- "support the work of under-represented filmmakers."

Ken Burns: This is draft 11.

Jeffrey Brown: At 68, Burns and his team are currently at work on seven films on the PBS schedule through 2027. He showed us the script for a work-in-progress on Ben Franklin.

Ken Burns: My corrections are in red, finally. And then you're getting to the place where there's very few things, and then you look at each other, and what's so nice is, usually you hand the youngest intern the bell.


Ken Burns: And then you ring it after each reel is done.

Jeffrey Brown: The actor Mandy Patinkin is the voice of Franklin.

Mandy Patinkin, Actor: I either write things worth reading or do things with the writing.

Ken Burns: On a sunny March afternoon in 1933...

Jeffrey Brown: Also in the works, the Holocaust and the United States. That's Burns' voice at this early stage of production.

Ken Burns: Jews, Hitler charged, were parasites.

You know, I'm greedy for the experience of working on a film. If I were given 1,000 years to live, which I won't, I would never run out of topics. I cannot not be rushing, as I approach my 70s, to make films about, not just the U.S., but about us, that is to say, the lowercase two-letter plural pronoun, all of the intimacy of that and all the majesty, the complexity, the contradiction and the controversy of the U.S.

Jeffrey Brown: And when you're looking at this long arc of your own career, where does Muhammad Ali, where does that story fit into it?

Ken Burns: He's the guy I want to go out to dinner with.

Jeffrey Brown: He is?

Ken Burns: He's the guy. I'd take maybe Abraham Lincoln. I love Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Ida B. Wells is a hero. I'm working on another project. I love her. Obviously, Harriet Tubman, Louis Armstrong.

But I just added to that ever expanding dinner table Muhammad Ali.

Jeffrey Brown: That's a good dinner party.

Ken Burns: Oh, my God. And you just shut up and listen.

Jeffrey Brown: Muhammad Ali, who battled Parkinson's in his last decades, died in 2016.

The new series on his life and legacy premieres this weekend.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Walpole, New Hampshire.

Announcer: What a finish!

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