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Ken Burns Talks to Jacobin About the Revolutionary Muhammad Ali

Ken Burns

The new four-part PBS documentary Muhammad Ali, codirected by Ken Burns, examines the life of the legendary boxer and antiwar radical. Burns talks to Jacobin about how a kid from Kentucky named Cassius Clay became “the spirit of the 20th century.”

Muhammad Ali in 1966. (Dutch National Archives)

Interview by
Ed Rampell

The new four-part documentary Muhammad Ali, codirected by four-time Emmy winner Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, is arguably a stand-up-and-cheer masterpiece. Premiering on September 19 and told over four consecutive nights on PBS, Burns and company will chronicle the life of the three-time champ — not only “the Greatest” boxer but a poet, a comedian, and the epitome of the athlete/activist, who fought his most heroic battle out of the ring.

As a boxer’s biopic, Muhammad Ali includes exciting, copious coverage of the legendary bouts, from the 1960 Olympics in Rome, to the early Sonny Liston matches, to the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire against George Foreman, to the “Thrilla in Manila” with “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier, and beyond. Burns and his codirectors do not shrink from the fact that pugilism is an extremely violent sport, and some, especially children, may find the visceral fighting hard to watch.

However, cocreated by the team that made PBS’s 2012 The Central Park Five and 2016’s Jackie Robinson (for which Sarah Burns and McMahon shared an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming), the artistically rendered Muhammad Ali is far more than merely an entertaining sports documentary.

Much to their credit, the filmmakers focus on Ali’s heroic political stances as an antiwar champion who courageously risked everything to stand up for his beliefs — refusing induction into the US military long before the tide of public opinion had turned against the Vietnam War.

Ali rather astoundingly publicly proclaimed: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

His brazen heroism led to the champ’s most daunting fight — not in the ring but in the courts, induction centers, college campuses, and rallies across America, as he was stripped of his World Boxing Association title and faced hard time behind bars and hefty fines.

Burns spoke with me via phone from his house in New Hampshire on Ali’s extraordinary and courageous life — and what it meant to be a champion, in every sense of the word, both inside and outside the ring.


How did living in the segregated South affect young Cassius Clay?


It affected him totally. He was born in the early 1940s in Jim Crow–segregated Louisville, Kentucky. He had to watch through a chain-link fence while white kids played in an amusement park he couldn’t enter. His father was a painter of some skill, but he couldn’t get a job, so he had to work as a sign painter, and he had a volcanic anger about it. Imagine what it was like in the 1950s, as a young boy the same age, more or less, as Emmett Till, to see the tortured, mutilated, and murdered body in an open casket because his mother wanted the world to see what had been done to her little boy.

Ali seemed to have been born with the sense that he had a purpose in life. He was ebullient; he was funny; he took risks. He was just in love with life. And everyone had the sense that he was going somewhere. He was voluble. When he found boxing as a calling, he took to it like a duck to water.

The young Cassius Clay.

Louisville was essential, and not only to the usual things that segregation does in a negative sense. Ali grew up — unlike many of the opponents he’d later face, like Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, or Larry Holmes — in a relatively comfortable neighborhood on Louisville’s West End, on Grand Avenue, which was home to many middle-class black people. That ultimately gave him a kind of confidence, a protective layer, and made him fluid in all worlds.

In fact, when he came home from the 1960 Olympics in Rome with gold medals, the city fathers — of course, all of them white — in Louisville formed a syndicate to protect him. He had this unbelievable contract that no one in boxing had ever had — all of his expenses were paid, he was paid a salary, and he got a huge portion of the gate. It’s an amazing, complicated story. Louisville adds and subtracts in an interesting way.


Ali and others frequently referred to him as being “pretty.” It’s curious that a term generally used regarding women was applied to such a masculine icon of that era. What’s the origin of that?


One of his great inspirations was watching the pro-wrestler villain Gorgeous George, who preened and wore makeup and wavy hair. Ali had always been brave enough in school to carry a purse, but he actually said, “Look at me, I’m pretty, I’m pretty as a girl.” He was thinking about the fact that he was a fine specimen. He was blowing apart our gender expectations and crossing lots of lines, and that made some people uncomfortable and made other people crack into a big smile.


Why, when, and how did Ali get involved with the Nation of Islam?


He had heard a record — I’m not sure exactly when — called “The White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell,” and it was read by a Minister X, who turned out to be Louis Farrakhan. He played it over and over again.

He was training in Miami, and he heard Abdul Rahman — “Captain Sam” was his street name, a former hustler — hawking Muhammad Speaks, the Nation of Islam newspaper. Rahman said, “Why are we called ‘Negroes’? Who gave us the name?” So Ali, still then known as Cassius Clay, started secretly attending an Islamic storefront and felt the first spiritual awakening in his life — something he hadn’t felt in the Christian church of his parents’ upbringing. It grew, and it became an issue leading up to the Sonny Liston fight in 1964 — so much so that his dear friend and mentor Malcolm X was sort of banished from Miami as a distraction until the eve of the fight.


One thing that your documentary puts into context better than anything else I’ve seen so far — including One Night in Miami — is the complex relationship between Ali and Malcolm X.


It’s a hugely complex one. At the beginning, it was just pure love. They identified with each other; Malcolm X saw in Cassius Clay his explosive personality and wit and potentiality. Clay saw the future.

Malcolm X was moving away from the corruptions and violence of the Nation of Islam and gaining fame on his own. He wished to be political; the Nation of Islam wished to be apolitical. They were pretty agnostic, if not openly hostile, toward athletics. So they kept their attention toward Ali underground.

Malcolm X with Muhammad Ali.

Malcolm and Ali had a great, great friendship. Then, when Malcolm X was expelled for saying something about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost” — he was suspended, and quite humbled by that. He tried to get back into the good graces. But it was really Elijah Muhammad and his lieutenants being jealous of Malcolm X’s growing fame and ability to spark a crowd. By then, he had also gone on to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and realized that there was something incredibly corrupt and constricting about this version of Islam — if, in fact, the Nation is Islam — and Malcolm then embraced a kind of ecumenical, much more wide view of it.

Meanwhile, Elijah Muhammad, fearful that he might lose his star — nobody thought he’d beat Liston, but Clay did — ordered him not to see Malcolm X and then gave him a name: Muhammad Ali. Shortly after, Malcolm X was assassinated. It was one of the flaws Ali felt he had to atone for late in his life. He said, “Malcolm was right about so many things.”

I think it’s also fair to understand that this twenty-two-year-old kid was terrified that the same thing might happen to him if he got on the wrong side of Elijah Muhammad.


I never heard that said before.


I mean, Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam. We don’t say this in the film, but lately, in the past few months since the film has been done, I’ve been thinking, how do you explain it? It’s not just “I’m going with the more powerful person.”

The Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam’s enforcers, had to be scaring the bejesus out of everybody, including — after the assassination of Malcolm X — a very young and impressionable Cassius Clay, with his new name, Muhammad Ali.


Ali constantly asserts, “I’m free to be what I want.” Yet, as he himself openly stated, he showed deference to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. The man who openly practiced civil disobedience was extremely obedient to Elijah Muhammad. Ali’s parents and first wife complained that Elijah and the Black Muslims exerted too much influence over him.


The first part of this is a little bit of a specious question, because freedom doesn’t mean you’re free of anything. The outlaw lives under more laws than the person who obeys the law. Those of us who believe in the United States and consider ourselves free serve the USA. So the idea that you could declare yourself free but also ally yourself with a controlling sect is one thing. He was an impressionable young man.

His parents were Christian, and they felt like they were losing touch with him. There was probably no small amount of worry about money and where it was going. And that was a good worry, because the Nation of Islam was siphoning it off in the form of Ali’s manager, Herbert Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad. There were lots of different complex dynamics that were very fluid and constantly changing, so at no one point is it clear whether the tail was wagging the dog or the other way around.


During his battle against the draft, Ali spoke publicly at antiwar and Black Panther rallies and college campuses. Tell us about Ali and the anti–Vietnam War movement.


There was a nice correspondence. Most of those people [at the rallies] had not really paid attention ever to who the heavyweight champion was. While many were not sympathetic to the proselytizing about Black Muslims, they shared Ali’s belief in what was wrong with the Vietnam War, and there was amazing synergy. You began to see Muhammad Ali becoming the hero of young white kids, in addition to being a hero of young black kids.

Walter Mosley is in our film, realizing how dangerous the ideas are. When a friend asked him about going to Vietnam, Mosley said: “Why would I go across there?” He thought it was entirely his own idea. But of course, he realized that Muhammad Ali was in his head.


Ali was born and raised in Kentucky. Did he ever attend any of the civil rights marches or protests?


No. In the beginning, he was quite sensitive about not offending his white backers, and yet he did meet — and it’s some of the greatest footage we have in the film — Dr Martin Luther King Jr in town to support striking workers in 1967. That was when Ali made the comment about how, when black people get together, you’re always worried — it’s like Kennedy and [Nikita] Khrushchev. And King cracked up.

Muhammad Ali, “the Greatest.”

I’ve seen King crack up in one other bit of footage, when Dick Gregory was telling a joke. But he cracked up at this young kid who was opposing the war, and they both agreed, in this joint news conference, that they had different beliefs, that their religions were in opposition to the war, and that he supported Muhammad Ali 100 percent. It’s a pretty spectacular piece of footage.

Ali put his arm around King, and King looked suddenly like his personal space was invaded. So, in the space of sixty seconds, Muhammad Ali had cracked up the greatest civil rights leader in US history and then made him feel monstrously uncomfortable — which, to me, is part of Ali’s genius.


Norman Mailer said Ali was “the very spirit of the twentieth century.” What did he mean?


It comes in at the very end of our introduction, the last phrase of spoken narration in our film. We believe there’s a sense of Ali being an American in the same way that Louis Armstrong was an American, or Abraham Lincoln was an American — kind of a sui generis figure — and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any other American who was the very spirit of the twentieth century.