Ken Burns tackles complicated story of Muhammad Ali

Rick's Reviews

Ken Burns offers a detailed look at “The Greatest” in his documentary “Muhammad Ali.”
(Photo courtesy of PBS)

A child’s efforts to get the attention of a parent can be challenging when there are a lot of siblings. It becomes a monumental task when that parent is the most well-known person on the planet and everyone is fighting for some attention.

That’s what Rasheda Ali faced as one of the nine daughters of one of the greatest sports legends in history, Muhammad Ali. Her relationship with her father and the relationship he had with the world is revealed in the latest documentary from Ken Burns.

“Muhammad Ali” is a four-part documentary that will be broadcast on Valley PBS at 8 p.m. Sept. 19-22. It  follows the life of the three-time heavyweight boxing champion who captivated billions with his combination of speed, agility and challenged Americans’ racial prejudices, religious biases and notions about what roles celebrities and athletes play in our society.

Rasheda Ali explains that each of Ali’s children had a very different experience and felt different emotions when it came to their father. She knew from the time she entered kindergarten that Ali was not “a regular dad.”

“My daddy came to our elementary school and everyone stopped and the teachers didn’t teach and the principal was drooling. I knew then, wow, he’s just not my dad. He’s everybody’s dad,” Rasheda Ali says. “The reality of sharing him, I wasn’t happy with that because I wanted him all to myself.

“Remember, my parents divorced when I was around 5. And with the breakup, I missed him and I did not see him as much anymore. So that loss, I really became selfish in my attempt to try to grab him only for me.”

Eventually, she knew that the only option was to share her father with the world. That realization was triggered by the impact her father was having on millions of people and that he was bigger than just being a championship boxer.

Rasheda Ali and her sister, Hana Ali, are featured in the Burns documentary. He says that Rasheda Ali is the heart of the production.

Also included in the film are Ali’s second wife Khalilah Ali, his third wife Veronica Porche, and his brother and confidant Rahaman Ali. Others appearing in the film include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Howard Bryant, historian Gerald Early, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, friend and business manager Gene Kilroy, boxing promoter Don King and long-time friend Abdul Rahman.

The interviews are part of the daunting task that Burns faced in trying to tell the story of a man who has been the subject of countless books, movies, TV shows, interviews and documentaries. Burns has seen all of his documentaries – from “Jackie Robinson” to “Country Music”- as being a challenge because they are all wrapped in complex stories. The look at Muhammad Ali was just as complicated.

“What we are always drawn to are very, very complicated stories, stories that are engaged in an essential Americanness, whatever that is, and we pursue it,” Burns says. “No one could be more important to exploration of that question than Muhammad Ali.

“Our job is to really tell the story. We are interested in facts and human beings and their complications. This is a story with a lot of undertow and a lot of many interesting facets, and we were charging ourselves with trying to do all of it.”

The main thing Burns realized was Muhammad Ali’s story is full of contradictions. Despite his ruthlessness in the ring, he was a symbol of peace and pacifism. Though committed to a faith that expected dignified conduct, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wives. Those are the kinds of elements that make a story complicated.

There’s a sign that hangs in the room where Burns edits his documentary films. It simply states “It’s complicated.”

The first question Burns generally faces when talking about the Muhammad Ali documentary has to do with the time. It appears that the film was made because the social issues that drove Muhammad Ali are so prevalent today.

Burns laughs when he explains the timing is just a coincidence as the decision to make the documentary was made in 2013 and work started a year later.

The years of work proved necessary because there was so much material. The team looked at a mountain of archival footage and photographs to provide the visual elements. Then the process of interviewing family and friends added the insights into what the public didn’t always get to see.

Included in the documentary are Muhammad Ali’s resistance to the Vietnam War, his commitment to his Muslim faith and his complex relationships with Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. While largely celebrated today as an icon of American sport and culture, Ali was not always embraced. At times he was reviled by many in America, especially white Americans and members of the media.

But, Burns never lost the focus that while Muhammad Ali’s own daughter became to believe her father was no ordinary dad, he was both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. In other words, it’s complicated.

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