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Inside Burns’ doc on Ali: ‘ We needed more space’

Directors extended series, which starts Sunday, to fit wealth of material about boxer.

- Scooby Axson USA TODAY

Sifting through 500 hours of archival footage, music and photos can be daunting for any filmmaker tasked with trying to create a seminal piece of art or entertainm­ent.

Throw in the added stress of trying to complete the project and stay safe during a global pandemic, and the process can take on an added significance.

For directors Ken Burns, his oldest daughter, Sarah, and son- in- law David McMahon, the labor of love that went into their latest documentar­y profiling Muhammad Ali comes with the territory and has created a widerangin­g and in- depth look at the life of the boxing legend.

When first conceived, “Muhammad Ali” was intended to be a sixhour opus. The final cut stretched it out to eight, which will be shown on four consecutiv­e nights on PBS starting Sunday.

“It’s obvious he’s one of the most important Americans in the history of the United States. He certainly is the greatest athlete of the 20th century,” Burns, who also is the executive producer, told USA TODAY Sports. “If he were alive in da Vinci’s or Michelange­lo’s time, that would be the sculpture of David. Also, his life intersects with all of the major issues of the late second half of the 20th century.”

Four different editors, one for each broadcast night, meticulous­ly cut the film. Although the film spent six years in the developmen­t stage, the script, penned by Sarah Burns and McMahon, took the better part of 18 months to complete.

Incorporat­ed are interviews with Ali’s family, including daughters Rasheda and Hana, two of his exwives, and younger brother.

Biographer Jonathan Eig and former heavyweigh­t champion Larry Holmes, who sparred and lived with Ali and later defeated him in a 1980 bout, were just some of the voices who were brought in to add perspectiv­e.

But the writers ran into a snag early in the process. After finishing the third episode, they realized they hadn’t reached “The Rumble in Jungle,” Ali’s 1974 triumph over George Foreman. There were still four decades of Ali’s life remaining, so the necessity to add another night was obvious.

“We’re like, this is going to be bigger,” Sarah Burns said. “We needed more space. There’s so much material, there’s so much of him and all that incredible footage of him talking, you know, he was always happy to get in front of a camera. It’s not just about a particular fight or even just it’s rare, obviously, that this is about a three- dimensiona­l human being and all these different parts of his life – his faith journey; his boxing, of course; his family life; his draft resistance and his battle with the government.”

Music also plays a vital part in the documentar­y as almost every contempora­ry genre is represente­d – from the rock sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana to hip- hop group Run the Jewels and Grammy winners Anderson . Paak and Digable Planets.

The filmmakers felt it was important for the music to complement Ali’s vigor in every scene. But finding music to license that would bring out his essence proved to be problemati­c, and many scenes began with harmonious pieces of music as opposed to building the scene in pictures.

Ali’s 1966 destructio­n of Cleveland Williams is one example. The scene lets Hendrix’s “Are You Experience­d” take over but still allows the audience to take in the actual boxing match.

“Hendrix is doing new things with the guitar, and you got this beautiful footage and they’re fighting in the past,” McMahon said. “And with the 60- millimeter film, the whole thing becomes kind of Technicolo­r and Hendrix gets right up underneath him. But I’m also grateful for those hip- hop beats and how they match Clay and later Muhammad’s energy.”

For as much as Burns has contribute­d to chroniclin­g different aspects of the world through his documentar­ies, he is still dogged by the various grievances about PBS’ perceived lack of commitment to diversity.

The tipping point was earlier this year when dozens of BIPOC documentar­y filmmakers signed a letter, which was given to the network’s executives.

Among the complaints in the letter was accusing PBS of having a “systemic failure to fulfill ( its) mandate for a diversity of voices” and issues with Burns’ four- decade partnershi­p with PBS, which many have noted as an interdepen­dence.

“When you program an 8- part series on Muhammad Ali by Ken Burns, what opportunit­y is there for a series or even a one- off film to be told by a Black storytelle­r who may have a decidedly different view?” the letter said.

Burns, who has an exclusive deal with PBS through 2022 and whose next projects will focus on Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci, says when it comes to filmmaking, especially profiling a subject who is not white, it shouldn’t matter who makes them.

The most recent documentar­ies on Ali, “City of Ali,” which focuses on Ali’s relationsh­ip with his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, is directed by Graham Shelby, and “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali” is helmed by Marcus A. Clarke.

Shelby is White and Clarke is Black. “I did not take it personally. We can all do better in this in this way, and PBS has been better than anybody else in this,” Burns said about the criticism. “I’m thinking about, the incredibly diverse team we have for Muhammad Ali. And it’s basically the same percentage­s that we had, you know, 25 years ago when we began our jazz series.

“I’m in the business of history and that includes everyone. And I’ve tried to tell the story of this country in an inclusive way.”

 ?? 1974 AP PHOTO ?? Ken Burns’ latest documentar­y takes a wide- ranging and in- depth look at the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
1974 AP PHOTO Ken Burns’ latest documentar­y takes a wide- ranging and in- depth look at the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
 ?? AP ?? Muhammad Ali throws a punch at Joe Frazier in the 12th round during their bout at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 28, 1974.
AP Muhammad Ali throws a punch at Joe Frazier in the 12th round during their bout at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 28, 1974.

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