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September 21, 2021

Daily News Lesson: An inside look at PBS’s ‘Muhammad Ali’ and who gets to tell the story


Directions: Read the summary, watch the video and answer the discussion questions. Some students may find it easier to read along with the transcript or turn on closed captions/CC.

Summary: 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.”

Discussion questions: 

Warm up questions: Have your students identify the 5Ws and an H:

  • 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 question: 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?

Additional resources:

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.


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