Muhammad Ali, a new four-part documentary directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, will air on September 19 – 22, 7 to 9 p.m. CT on NPT. 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 Housing Story (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.
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 Zirin. Jonathan Eig, an Ali biographer, 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, Burns and 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.” Ali 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 U.S. 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.” PBS LearningMedia will also build out full educational materials focusing on the intersection of race and sports in 20th-century America to support the film.
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, and boxing promoter Don King.
The film also includes interviews with attorney 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.
A production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, D.C., Muhammad Ali was directed and executive produced by Ken Burns, directed, written and produced by Sarah Burns 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).
Muhammad Ali will be available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS 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 of Ken Burns films. 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.