Throughout Ken Burns’ long career as a documentarian and a PBS pledge-drive favorite, he and his team of collaborators have generally worked in two modes. Sometimes they go big, taking on huge topics like jazz, baseball, country music, national parks, and wars. And sometimes they go small, crafting detailed portraits of major cultural figures like Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Robinson, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Roosevelts. In either case, Burns’ team uses their subjects as a way to explore the best and worst of American history: the larger-than-life celebrities, the racial and class strife, and the ways some brilliant men and women have used the ideals of liberty to inspire others.
In Ken Burns’ four-part Muhammad Ali—co-directed with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon—the documentarian and his crew have a subject almost too perfect. Born in Louisville, the heavyweight boxing champion once known as Cassius Clay had a rich life: winning an Olympic gold medal, challenging a bigoted establishment, offering aid and support to the needy around the world, and entertaining millions with both his athleticism and his outsized, publicity-generating personality. It’s impossible to make a documentary about Ali without running smack into many of Burns’ recurring themes. But there’s the problem: Muhammad Ali’s story is so ripe for the telling that it’s actually already been told—over and over, in print and onscreen, for decades.
Want to know more about Ali’s conversion to Islam and his friendship with Malcolm X? Netflix’s Blood Brothers is a very good documentary about that very topic. Interested in Ali’s three-year exile from boxing, when he fought in court to prove he was a legitimate conscientious objector to the Vietnam War? That’s covered splendidly in the 2013 doc The Trials Of Muhammad Ali. Ali’s thrilling mid-’70s comeback, culminating in the defeat of George Foreman in the legendary “Rumble In The Jungle” match? Leon Gast won an Oscar for his brilliant 1996 film about it, When We Were Kings. An over-the-hill Ali using racially charged language to humiliate his former friend Larry Holmes before a title fight? Cinematic luminary Albert Maysles explored that in the great 2009 30 For 30 episode “Muhammad And Larry.” There are nonfiction films about his final Joe Frazier bout, and about how it felt to face Ali; just two years ago, director Antoine Fuqua and HBO produced a career-spanning doc.
The Burns/Burns/McMahon Muhammad Ali documentary runs for over seven hours, but it doesn’t tackle any one topic in as much depth as most of the aforementioned films. Yet each of those docs does in its own way cover the larger arc of Ali’s life, framed by the smaller fragments. The same can be said of director Michael Mann’s outstanding 2001 biopic Ali, with Will Smith playing the champ during the heady decade between 1964 and 1974; as well as Regina King’s 2020 adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play One Night In Miami, with Eli Goree giving a great performance as Ali, hanging out with Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke after winning his first heavyweight title.