Q. What did you hope to accomplish with this film?
A. We were really aware that there are many documentaries out there about Muhammad Ali and many of them are truly amazing, so this is by no means a review of the existing recording of him. We just wanted to do the whole arc of life. A large number of [the other films] concern a particular fight, or a few years of his life, or his battle with the United States [government], but we really wanted to know who he was from birth and growing up in isolation, Jim Crow Louisville, Ky., until his death. [at 74] of Parkinson’s disease, in 2016. And not just focusing on boxing, which is the central thing, but on his childhood, his brother, his parents, the pressures of Jim Crow and the support that the West gave him. End of Louisville, getting into boxing, his women, it was all important. I wanted to see this not as a fixed thing but as a moving and evolving spiritual journey.
Q. How do you see him ranking as a historical figure?
A. He is a man who crosses over all the important themes of the second half of the 20th century. The role of sport in society, the role of black athletes in society, the changing definition of black masculinity and black manhood, civil rights and different approaches. He had this extraordinary, larger than life character, a human being with strengths and weaknesses that we weren’t afraid to show, but who plays out in such an inspiring way that, in essence, the story becomes a story of freedom, courage and love. .
It’s an amazing story without even delving into boxing, which is like a series of Shakespeare plays. Liston’s first fight, Frazier’s first fight, that incredible loss and him who turned tragedy – in quotes – into renewed popularity, with people letting go of some of the things that had made them so upset about Muhammad Ali. And obviously the fight with George Foreman, in 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, and the fight in Manila, the third fight against Frazier.
Q. Would you call him a tragic Shakespearean hero?
A. I would drop the word “tragic”, which is why I would put it in quotes, because man dies the most beloved person on the planet. I just finished a film about Ernest Hemingway: It’s tragic. Although there are excruciating aspects [to Ali’s life], like the role Parkinson played and his reluctance to end his career until it’s too late, he even turns that into this masterful post-boxing life that encompasses world things and he becomes kind of a apostle of love. He was a superhero, the real thing, with an Achilles heel and the pride to go with great strength.
Q. What were his biggest flaws?
A. I thought it was important for us to include that he was a serial womanizer as well as the betrayal – abandonment is a better word – of Malcolm X, and the inexcusable treatment of Joe Frazier. He is the ultimate, conscious black man using the language of a white racist, not only against Frazier but also against other opponents, like Floyd Patterson.
Q. Did you think his membership of the Nation of Islam contributed more to his strengths or weaknesses?
A. It seems that Elijah Muhammad [then leader of the group] was a true father figure. As cuckold as some aspects of Nation of Islam theology may be, however remote they may be from mainstream Islam, it provided Ali with a worldview that began a spiritual quest that ultimately transcended her. Elijah Muhammad raised him and gave him this worldview that was beginning to animate and ignite his spiritual journey. Malcolm X [betrayal] Ali knew he was wrong, but the kind of Islam he came to openly embrace was more like mainstream Islam, which is where Malcolm arrived at his death.
Q. Benjamin Franklin is next for you?
A. I just finished a film last spring on Benjamin Franklin, who was born on the same day as Muhammad Ali. If Muhammad Ali is the greatest of the 20th century, Benjamin Franklin is the greatest of the 18th century, for a variety of skills, talents and flaws. He was the greatest diplomat in American history – nothing Washington did would have succeeded without Franklin’s diplomatic help. He was at the level of Isaac Newton when it came to scientific discoveries. He would have won a Nobel Prize if there had been one at the time. He was a great writer, stylist, and politician the same way Ali is all kinds of things.
Q. And he never owned slaves.
A. He owned slaves. Domestic slaves, as was common in the North. He later became an abolitionist.
Q. Well I learned something and I haven’t even seen the movie yet.
In addition to airing on PBS, “Muhammad Ali” is available to air on PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel starting September 19. Go to amzn.to/3Adnvvw.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Peter Keough can be reached at [email protected].