Ken Burns Still Has Faith in a Shared American StoryHistorians in the News
tags: documentaries, Ken Burns, television
It cannot be said that Ken Burns is an unambitious filmmaker. He is, after all, a director who has spent 40 years making documentaries about truly foundational American subjects: the Civil War, Thomas Jefferson, jazz, the Roosevelts, baseball, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Vietnam War, country music. The list goes on. (And on. Think of an iconic American historical figure or event, and there’s a half-decent chance that Burns, 67, has made or is currently making a documentary about it.) But Burns’s greatest audacity might simply be his belief that the stories he tells about those biggies — and their attendant ambiguities, hopes and disappointments — can resonate with all Americans, across political or ideological divides. “It’s important for me to speak to everybody,” says Burns, whose documentary about another biggie, “Hemingway” (directed with Lynn Novick), premieres April 5 on PBS, “and to be able to try to remind us that we have things in common.”
In this moment, when there has been such a fracturing of any common American identity, has the project that you’re engaged in — of exploring fundamental national stories that might speak to all of us — become quixotic? That is really hard to answer. There was never a “project.” It was never like, Let’s do this. I’ve made films for more than 40 years on the U.S., but I’ve also made films about “us.” All of the intimacy of that two-letter lowercase plural pronoun and all the majesty and contradiction of the U.S. But the thing that I’ve learned is that there’s no “them.” This is what everybody does: make a distinction about “them.” It’s just us.
I understand what that means from a humanistic perspective but — But I got to sell newspapers, buddy!
But what does saying “There’s no them’’ mean for you practically as an American and a filmmaker? It’s easy to say “It’s just us,” but when you look around and see people willing to engage in racism, authoritarianism — it’s hard not to think that’s them. Is it wrong to do that? “There’s no them” requires discipline. It requires a nonreactive state, which is the state of observation. That’s part of a journalistic discipline. It is a difficult thing to do. You’ve described, in a journalistic question, the impulse to react and make distinctions. I don’t mean to call you into question. I’m not. It’s just that “There’s no them” is a form of self denial, of asceticism, that is important. My neighbor down the street believes in what is called the Big Lie — fervently. Do I make him “them” or do I struggle to not do that? The only answer that I know is, I struggle not to do that.
I’ve seen people ask you, given where the contemporary conversation is about race, if “The Civil War” would be done differently if you were to make it today. You’ve said it would, but not how. So how would it be different? I don’t know. It just would naturally be different. But not in any fundamental way. It was important to represent all the different voices that we represented. The most important thing about me talking about race now is to say that I am in a position where I have to be quiet. You have to be quiet. There are other voices that need to speak. The dismantling of white supremacy is not just white people continually talking about the dismantling of white supremacy. You have to shut up and listen. Shut the [expletive] up. So I can be a reporter. I can be an aggregator. I can be a distiller. But I wish the films to be populated with voices that are not my own. And I don’t mean just for representation, which is important, but for how you unpack all these things.
Along those lines, are there stories relating to race — or any subject — that you think are not yours to tell? That’s legitimate, but I’m drawn to what I’m drawn to. I don’t go looking for race, but we have two projects going: Also on tap are films about Benjamin Franklin, the American Revolution and Leonardo da Vinci. One — it’ll be out in September — is a history of Muhammad Ali. We’re also working on a big series which I’m calling “From Emancipation to Exodus.” Reconstruction is the heart of it — actually, the failure of Reconstruction. It’s important that we not resegregate ourselves and our narratives. So, for example, we were taking what was, with the Civil War, a white narrative and saying, Uh-uh. Frederick Douglass has a position of centrality. Spottswood Rice, An enslaved man who escaped and joined the Union Army. has a position of centrality. People talk about the avuncular Shelby Foote The Mississippi writer and historian whose storytelling and narration made him a star of “The Civil War.” Foote has been criticized for an overly romantic, nostalgic view of the Southern Confederacy, as if he represented a Southern bias. He represented a Southern perspective, and had his own biases, but what’s remembered from the film is Barbara Fields’s comment that the Civil War is still going on and regrettably can still be lost. That’s one of the last moments of the film, and that’s what’s being replayed constantly since Charlottesville.
You bring that Barbara Fields quote up a lot in interviews. But the literal closing lines in “The Civil War” are spoken by Shelby Foote, quoting the bittersweet writing of a Confederate veteran. Do you ever wish you’d switched who got the last word? No. I tried it. It doesn’t work. It took the film out of a historical dynamic and placed it in another one. In the penultimate position, Barbara Fields’s comment works perfectly because it feeds into an ending in which the Shelby Foote quote is a release. It’s like music. Whatever the last note is, usually you sustain it. Barbara’s note wouldn’t sustain and wouldn’t have had the power that it has if it wasn’t buffered by this other thing that permitted you to leave the song, if I can extend the analogy.
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