Ken Burns Takes on Muhammad Ali

Daniel Hautzinger
Muhammad Ali talks with the press after winning back the Heavyweight Championship for an unprecedented third time by beating Leon Spinks at the Super Dome in New Orleans, LA. September 15, 1978. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Gaffney
Muhammad Ali talks with the press after winning back the Heavyweight Championship for an unprecedented third time by beating Leon Spinks at the Super Dome in New Orleans, LA. September 15, 1978. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Gaffney

Having tackled Ernest Hemingway, Ken Burns takes on another iconic and mythologized figure of American culture in his newest documentary: Muhammad Ali. The four-part series will premiere on WTTW and PBS stations September 19 through 22 at 8:00 pm and is written and co-directed by Burns' daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon.

Known as "the greatest of all time" and widely considered one of the most consequential athletes and figures of the twentieth century, Ali was a three-time heavyweight boxing champion who reached billions of fans around the world, including in legendary fights like "The Thrilla in Manila" and "The Rumble in the Jungle." But he was equally important and compelling out of the ring, as a lightning rod figure lauded and vilified for his opposition to the Vietnam War and his involvement with the Nation of Islam, much of which occured while he lived in Chicago. 


Ali, who died in 2016, was both a thrillingly talented athlete who signed every fan's autograph and an international symbol of pacifism who was a quiet philanthropist. Burns, Burns, and McMahon are uniquely suited to tackle this complicated subject: Sarah Burns and McMahon have previously worked with Burns on East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing StoryJackie Robinson, and The Central Park Five, all of which deal with the complexity of race in America, a theme that undergirds Muhammad Ali's life. Burns himself produced a documentary about Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion of the world, as well as a monumental series about the Vietnam War and other examinations of America's relationship to sports.

The documentary will include exhaustive archival footage and photographs, in typical Burns fashion, as well as interviews with Ali's wives and children, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ali biographer Jonathan Eig, poet and activist Nikki Giovanni, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, boxing promoter Don King, writers Wole Soyinka, Gay Talese, and David Remnick, and more. 

Before the September premiere, Burns will participate in a series of conversations with PBS and The Undefeated, ESPN's multimedia platform exploring the intersection of sports, race and culture. Sports and entertainment figures, writers, and scholars will discuss Ali's legacy and the intersection of sports, race, and politics in his life and the world today, at a time when Black athletes have once again attracted controversy for their principled denouncements of racial injustice. The conversations begin June 23.

If you can't wait until September to begin diving into Ali's multifaceted life, WTTW Passport members can stream a shorter documentary about his life now. You can also dip into the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, associated with our sister station WFMT, to listen to Ali discuss his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story with Studs in a 1975 conversation.