Detroit Bankruptcy Documentary Wins Library of Congress Prize

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tags: documentaries, Detroit, urban history, white flight, Municipal Finance

Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy Of Detroit, directed by Sam Katz and James McGovern, swept the 2021 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, a three-year-old documentary award that carries a finishing grant of $200,000.

The winning entry explores the decline of the American manufacturing city culminating in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013 and its aftermath.

Directors of runner-up Free Chol Soo Lee, Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, will receive $50,000 for their story of a Korean immigrant wrongly convicted of a Chinatown gang murder in San Francisco in 1973. Four finalists will be awarded $25,000 apiece.

Filmmakers from Ken Burns’ production company Florentine Films and staff from the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center — the Library’s moving image and recorded sound preservation facility – selected the six entries from a flurry of initial submissions of late-stage American history documentaries. That was winnowed to two by a national jury including filmmakers Sam Pollard, Dawn Porter and Sally Rosenthal, along with Edward Ayers, president emeritus of the University of Richmond and Andrew Delbanco, American Studies professor at Columbia University.

Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, in consultation with Burns, selected the winner. It’s the third year of the prize. (“We’ve always been unanimous, otherwise I would defer to her,” Burns told Deadline.)

“Each of the films is an extraordinary work of art,” he said. “I have long believed that our ability to engage around historical topics will help us tackle some of the challenges we are dealing with today.” The winning grants are significant sums and Burns said have helped a number of films cross the finish line. He and his team are available to give the winners notes and advice.


Burns called Gradually, Then Suddenly a “complex, nuanced, layered and accomplished tiktok of what’s going on. You get to meet public officials and minor bureaucrats and union people, and it’s trying to figure out how to deal with the crisis. It’s complicated by the politics of Michigan.”

Read entire article at Deadline

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