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An inside look at PBS's ‘Muhammad Ali’ and who gets to tell the story

September 21, 2021


Ken Burns’ latest four-part documentary, “Muhammad Ali,” premiered Sunday, Sept. 19 on PBS and runs for four nights. Jeffrey Brown visited Burns at his studio for a behind-the-scenes look at how he makes his films, and the larger context and conflicts in telling America’s story in a time of racial reckoning. This report is part of our arts and culture series, “CANVAS.”

Five Facts

  • Who is Ken Burns and what is he known for?
  • What are some of the reasons Burns wanted to cover Ali?
  • When did Muhammad Ali become a civil rights icon?
  • Why is telling Ali’s story important, according to this interview?
  • How might this documentary add to viewers’ understanding of the American experience?

Focus Questions

  • If you could request an in-depth PBS documentary about one historical American figure, who would you choose, and why?
  • What are your thoughts on Ken Burn’s response about making a film about Muhammad Ali as a white male and the issue of ‘who gets to tell the story’?

Media literacy: Why do you think this piece was largely about the making of the documentary, and not the subject of the documentary itself?

For More

You can watch Ken Burns’ Muhammad Ali series here. You can watch the trailer below:


  • This year, director Regina King released a fictionalized retelling of Ali’s significance in the civil rights movement called One Night in Miami. You can learn more about that film in this lesson.


Media literacy education

What is media literacy?

Media literacy is the ability to access, evaluate and create all types of media, including news media.

All of NewsHour Classroom's resources contain lessons in media literacy, including questions like who produced the piece and what do you know about them?

Start by evaluating this video introducing NewsHour Classroom here.