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Filmmaker Ken Burns 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.
“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.”
The 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).
“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.”
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 United States 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.
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” and competed in some of the most dramatic and widely viewed sporting events ever. “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.
Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, bought a home in Paradise Valley in 2005 and spent his later years in the Phoenix area. The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at the Barrow Neurological Institute is named for the boxing great, who was a founder of the center as well as a patient.
Ali died in Scottsdale on June 3, 2016. West Merrell Street in Phoenix near the medical facility was renamed Muhammad Ali Way in 2019.
In addition to the national PBS premiere of “Muhammad Ali,” Arizona PBS will tell the story of Zora Folley, a former Chandler city councilman and boxer, who once jumped into the ring with Ali. Jody Crago, administrator of the Chandler Museum, will talk about Folley, who’s featured in an exhibit at the museum. The episode will air on “Arizona Horizon” on Friday, Sept. 17 at 5 and 10 p.m.
Leading up to the September broadcast, Burns will join PBS and The Undefeated, ESPN’s multimedia platform exploring the intersection of sports, race and culture, to hold a series of insightful conversations about sports and race in America. The virtual events, Conversations on Muhammad Ali, will take place virtually via Zoom. Register here.