Ken Burns is returning to sports. Nearly 30 years after his nine-part Baseball series, and following more recent documentaries on Jack Johnson and Jackie Robinson, Burns will debut a four-part, eight-hour Muhammad Ali documentary Sunday on PBS.
“This is a story of the greatest athlete of the 20th century, if not all time,” Burns said. “I’m willing to have that argument.”
The project has been in development since 2014, spanning a revolution in sports docs. In 2016, ESPN’s eight-hour OJ: Made in America won an Oscar for best documentary feature. Last year, The Last Dance became ESPN’s most-watched doc as it held viewers’ attention over 10 episodes. Suddenly, a four-part Ali project doesn’t seem so long.
In the show, Burns traces Ali’s life from his birth in segregated Louisville to his death in 2016, which followed years of dealing with the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Unlike many of his other subjects, Burns was around for Ali’s heyday.
“I grew up with him,” said Burns, who was raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., as part of a family opposed to the Vietnam War. “I remember the refusal [to be drafted].… What everyone else considered the most divisive thing, I saw as heroic.”
While tracking society’s impact on Ali, and vice versa, Burns doesn’t lose sight of the ring. “It’s almost like respiration, there’s an in and an out,” Burns said. “You can’t get too far away from boxing, and yet you can’t stay in boxing too long.”
This is Burns’ second boxing-related project, but he says he doesn’t have a relationship to the sport. “I’ve made 12 hours of films on boxers, and I don’t really care about it.” Nor does he specifically identify with the category of sports films. Instead, he said, all that matters is the story.
Still, the baseball and football fan sees athletics as compelling lenses for larger issues. He has no issue, for instance, calling Baseball a sequel to his previous hit, The Civil War. Like many of us, Burns said he struggles to keep up with the onslaught of documentaries that now hit a variety of streaming services. “I wish I had the luxury,” he said, “but then I wouldn’t be able to make the films that I’m making.” Still, he’s not complaining about the boom.
“What’s great about this sort of golden age of documentaries is that it’s really revealing all the complexities of the subject matter,” he said. “That’s a really good thing. And so that’s why you applaud them, however late I am catching up to seeing them.”