Muhammad Ali, a four-part documentary directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, premiered in September 2021 on CPTV. It is now available to stream on CPTV Passport.
The series was also written and co-directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon. It 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.
Leading up to the broadcast, Ken Burns joined 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, featured sports and entertainment figures, scholars and writers, preview clips from the film, and examined Ali’s life and career in the context of America — and the world — today. The hour-long events each covered a theme from the film and included a discussion with the filmmakers and special guests. Visit pbs.org/ali to stream these Conversations on Muhammad Ali events, including “Ali the Man,” “Ali on the World’s Stage,” “Ali, Race & Religion,” and “Ali, Activism & The Modern Athlete.”
PBS LearningMedia also offers educational materials focusing on the intersection of race and sports in 20th-century America to support the film.
More About the Series
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, including “The Fight of the Century” and “The Thrilla in Manila,” both against his great rival Joe Frazier, and “The Rumble in the Jungle,” in which he defeated George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title that was stripped from him seven years earlier. 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.
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.
Ali’s story is full of contradictions. Despite his competitive reputation and ruthless athleticism in the ring, he went on to become a symbol for peace and pacifism. Though committed to a faith that expected obedience and dignified conduct, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wives, at times publicly flaunting his affairs. Ali was a clever showman with an unparalleled genius for promotion and turn of phrase, who occasionally allowed his partners and friends to take advantage of him. He endlessly trumpeted his own greatness as a boxer, but anonymously donated to save a Jewish old age home, made surprise visits to pediatric hospitals, and signed autographs for every last fan.
Muhammad Ali includes interviews with Ali’s daughters Hana Ali and Rasheda Ali, his second wife Khalilah Ali, his third wife Veronica Porche, and his brother and confidant Rahaman Ali. Others appearing in the film include activist and former basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, boxing promoter Bob Arum, anthropologist Donna Auston, childhood friend Vic Bender, former heavyweight boxing champion and playwright Michael Bentt, author Todd Boyd, sportswriter Howard Bryant, law professor and co-founder of the Weather Underground Bernardine Dohrn, historian Gerald Early, journalist and Ali biographer Jonathan Eig, poet and activist Nikki Giovanni, former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, childhood friend Alice Houston, sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, professor of religion Sherman Jackson, former Georgia State Senator Leroy Johnson, friend and business manager Gene Kilroy, sportswriter Dave Kindred, boxing promoter Don King, lawyer Tom Krattenmaker, sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, lawyer Michael Meltsner, novelist Walter Mosley, journalist Salim Muwakkil, long-time friend Abdul Rahman, New Yorker editor David Remnick, photographer Lowell Riley, historian Randy Roberts, childhood friend Owen Sitgraves, friend Victor Solano, Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka, writer Gay Talese, writer Quincy Troupe, and sportswriter Dave Zirin.