Ken Burns: ‘Muhammad Ali’

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Director, Ken Burns. Photo courtesy of Evan Barlow.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose newest project is the four-part series “Muhammad Ali” on PBS. Burns is known for his in depth looks at the history of baseball, the Civil War, and the Brooklyn Bridge as well as many other subjects. Burns tells The Treatment about the often unintended connections between his subjects like Ali, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Johnson. He discusses Ali’s instinctive athletic talent and his great physical beauty. And he says the theme he kept going back to while making the series was love.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. It may seem like it's a long distance from the Brooklyn Bridge to Muhammad Ali, but not as long as you might think, especially for our guest, documentary director Ken Burns, who's done both those documentaries in addition to a whole bunch of other films. "Muhammad Ali" is his newest four part series for PBS. As I was watching, I found myself thinking that could be a kind of de facto sequel to your film, "Unforgettable Blackness: the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson." 

Ken Burns: There's a scene towards the end of that in which we learned that Jack Johnson's life was inspirational to Muhammad Ali. And then in our third episode of “Ali,” we hear it from the reverse angle. Jack Johnson tried to achieve that level of freedom that Muhammad Ali achieved. Jack Johnson just did it for himself, Muhammad Ali did it for everyone. And so in a way, this is more in line with the Jackie Robinson story because Jackie Robinson redefined Black manhood and Black masculinity in his generation. And then Muhammad Ali took it the next step. Both men were willing to pay the price of freedom and exhibit the kind of courage both inside the ring or on the diamond that both had to do, as well as a kind of courage outside the ring, outside the diamond. 

KCRW: Jack Johnson and Ali were basically the first two men of color who lived their lives in public the same way they lived them in private. They were basically openly Black. Jackie Robinson was a bit more politic about it, because he saw the big picture and he came through a team sport whereas I just feel that there's a kind of proclamation of militancy that really unites, in a proto way, Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali.

Burns: Jackie's famous for us pigeonholing him into the three years that he was asked to turn the other cheek, one year with a farm team in the Montreal Royals. The next two in the major leagues, '47 and '48. When that was over, he suddenly was free to be more activist and all of a sudden he was "uppity." 

Both Ali and Jack Johnson are defiantly themselves, and the difference I think that's most important is Ali dies the most beloved person on his planet; Jack Johnson does not, and a lot of that had to do with what the motivations were for that kind of freedom. Ali's seem to come from some place of love as well as courage and freedom. Jack Johnson just wanted to be himself and resolutely himself and was perfectly alright to sleep with whom he wanted to sleep with, marry whom he wanted to, and let the chips fall where they may. Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, when he refuses induction into the United States Army, he's speaking for people across the world. 

Photo by Michael Gaffney

KCRW: There's a clip used to start the second episode, where Malcolm X is being interviewed. You can see his jaw tense a little bit every time Ali's referred to as Cassius Clay rather than Ali. There's a great line Malcolm X has when he's asked about Bob Marley turning to Islam, and he says he's more capable of speaking for himself than every man in this country.

Burns: It's working on lots of different levels. We obviously want to understand the boxing. We obviously want to understand the arc of his entire life from birth and childhood in Jim Crow segregated Louisville, to his death not that long ago from Parkinson's. But we also wanted to understand this as a story about freedom and how much it takes to achieve that. 

It's interesting that Malcolm X, his great friend and mentor, continues to call him Cassius Clay for a long time after Ali has been rewarded for cutting Malcolm X off by being given this new name by Elijah Muhammad. Later on to me, it's very stunning that he uses Cassius again in a way that is not disrespectful. I think it's more disrespectful to the organization, what I think Malcolm X correctly believes, is a rather corrupt organization. 

KCRW: That, to me, felt like such a crystallizing moment because it speaks to, at that point in Ali's history, his present and his future. When you came upon that, did you think this is key thematically to what we're doing here?

Burns: You know, we don't think that way when we're making a film. Nothing is key, thematically, it just is fitting in and working. There's a kind of emotional context, I don't mean sentimental or nostalgic, but there's a kind of emotional archeology involved in our searching and our assembly of things. This is not additive; it's all a subtractive process.

To me something much more telling or central is in the moment after the Supreme Court has liberated him from his five year prison sentence, finally, on a technicality, but it's an important one. He's been denied due process. A reporter sticks a microphone in his face, and it's at that moment where everyone's vision of Ali at this time, is to dance and recite poetry and to be smug and to be self satisfied at this victory. And the reporter says, What do you think about the system now? And he says, Well, I don't know who's going to be assassinated tonight. I don't know who's going to be enslaved, who's going to be denied justice, or equality. 

What that means is he's ranging back across 350 years of the mistreatment of African Americans on this continent since 1619 right past Emmett Till, the boy not too different in age from him who was brutally tortured and murdered and whose mother had the courage to have an open casket. Jet magazine took pictures, and every Black person in this country saw those pictures at that time, as did millions of others and helped energize the civil rights movement in a way, but also left kids like Muhammad Ali with a great deal of confusion and a great deal of fear. He also seems to, in that moment, be speaking ahead, thinking about Rodney King and Trayvon Martin, and 11 year-old Tamir Rice and Breonna Taylor from his own hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and George Floyd, along with--I'm sorry to say--thousands of other names that are too numerous for us to list, whom he does not know yet, but who have been populating the cemeteries, the ditches, the rivers, the tree limbs of the United States for now, 402 years. 

Photo by Michael Gaffney

KCRW: One of the things I want to talk about, too, and we get it in the documentary, as well, is also about the generational shift in the press. That press conference where he's talking about converting to Islam, this group of people who are probably the kind of people you grew up reading, this man again, revealing himself, which is not something that Black celebrities did. You were one person in front of the world, somebody else when that was gone, but to be that self-reflective in real time. 

Burns: After having tried to break your connections to Jack Johnson, let me try to reforge them in a way. Joe Lewis is the only Black man, light skinned Joe Lewis, who is permitted to become the heavyweight champion, because he's agreed in advance: he will not be photographed with white women. He will not gloat over his victories. So this is the price Joe Lewis has to pay for his decades plus time at the top. And this is all the anti-Jack Johnson. He just had to promise he wouldn't be anything like Jack Johnson: dark skinned, loving white women, sleeping with white women, marrying white women, gloating over his victories over every great white hope that came up.

So Muhammad Ali comes in and he's suddenly doing all the "mistakes" that that Joe Lewis didn't do and that the world felt Jack Johnson had. So here he is, and there is this old guard that is just apoplectic at the idea that an athlete would behave this way, let alone a Black athlete. But the younger ones are kind of fascinated; the Robert Lipsytes, the Dave Kindreds, the Jerry Eisenbergs, eventually, Howard Cosell, who is gonna find a kind of symbiotic relationship with him. They're watching him, and they love him.

And then that quiet press conference after he beat Sonny Liston. He's not bombastic anymore. He's suddenly saying, I don't have to be what you want me to be. I can be what I want to be. But what's interesting is, there are people who are witnessing this. Black people are witnessing this. And when he says I'm beautiful, and I'm Black, they are hearing that as a message of affirmation. Nobody had said that quite that way before. Now it sounds like: of course! But then this was something really new, and people heard it and reverberated because of his conversion around the world. 

KCRW: I can't help but connect the threads. Before this, you just did the Hemingway series, which is about somebody who's also creating a mythology around himself, and the growth of mass media in the 20th century. For me, there's a kind of connection between Ali, Hemingway, and country music. They're all about the rise of media in this way, and the rise of technology.

Burns: That's exactly right. Not that we do this consciously. But all of a sudden, you're waking up in the middle of four or five years into ‘Ali’ and going, Oh my God, he had four wives. So did Ernest Hemingway. Doesn't end so well for Hemingway. He dies at 60, 61 with a self-inflicted shotgun blast.

KCRW: But his fear is about the same thing about losing his capacities.

Burns: Muhammad Ali moves into the loss of capacities and actually speaks in a much broader way when he can no longer speak. Hemingway's tragic. He's self -involved, and he gets lost in his mythology. Muhammad Ali doesn't. While he is self-deluding at times, it isn't the wholesale buying into it that Hemingway did. Even then as we learn about Hemingway's gender fluidity, you begin to realize that perhaps that masculine mask, that toxic hyper masculine persona, which was true: he was a brawler, he was a deep sea fisherman, he was a bullfight aficionado, he was a big game hunter, a deep sea fisherman. It was also masking curiosities that permeated into his writing about how women felt and how women believe. So he was at war with himself in a way that I don't think Ali was. 

The interesting thing is that the next film that I finished that will be out in the spring is on Benjamin Franklin, who's born the same day as Muhammad Ali, January 17. And he is arguably the most interesting person of the 18th century.

KCRW: You often are focused on people with a gift. For the first five years of his career, Ali's reflexes were so good that he didn't need to have technique. And the film pays attention to the fact that he was not just a great athlete, an astonishing athlete who could do so much stuff in real time. Those appetites you were talking about, partially came from the fact that his career was derailed at its peak by his own decision, by the way, but a lot of that just seemed to be him, almost living out this adolescent life and post adolescence because he didn't get the chance to fail the way athletes would have had had a chance to have those years. 

Burns: Let's presume the "what if?" I think he would have just kept on winning and winning and winning and maybe gotten lazy and lost in a way. He won the first two fights against Jerry Quarry and then Bonavena and then lost to Frazier, won several fights and then lost again to Norton, then came back and beat Norton and then came back and beat Frazier and then was able to recapture the heavyweight championship for the second time 10 years after he got it the first time. But you're right. This is a guy who is completely untrained and untutored; his abilities are so natural and innate. He's not going to be bent by anybody else. 

KCRW: It's not only the astonishing ability, but joy in this. He took so much pleasure in it, and that's a rarity to see somebody who's that immersed in craft and instinct and power and ability and intelligence, but also the pleasure he got from it. All these things you're talking about seem almost vaguely sexual.

Burns: Oh, it is. He's the most beautiful person you've seen. I mean, I think if Michelangelo was going to be commissioned to sculpt David right now, he goes, Well, I don't think so. Maybe I'll do Muhammad Ali. He is gorgeous.

It's so much easier to talk about the easier things: the freedom, in context of race and politics, the courage, in the context of race and politics and the sport of boxing. But there's also this other dimension that I've been trying to say, which is love. He loves this game. He loves himself. He loves the life he's living. He seems to love everyone around him, he wants to reach out and give everyone something. He is generous to a fault.  

I like the picture when the Beatles show up in part of their British invasion in '64, when he's training for the Liston fight. There's a fake publicity thing of him punching George who's falling into Ringo, falling into John, who's falling into Paul. All five of these men understood a fundamental principle of the mechanics of the universe, and that is that love multiplies. John Lennon said, All you need is love. Paul McCartney maybe said it the best: And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. Muhammad Ali practiced that in a different place. It wasn't in the music business, but he did it in a way that so transcended his skills, so transcended the circumstances, both positive and negative of his life, that he becomes a kind of avatar or apostle of all of these things. Freedom? Yes. Courage? Yes, but also love. 



Rebecca Mooney