The late historian Stephen Ambrose once remarked, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.” This quote, a polite stew of genuine reverence and thinly veiled critique of our dismal education system, is proudly displayed on the PBS website, on Burns’s own website, and in every other profile of the renowned documentarian. While Ambrose wasn’t exactly a paragon of sourcing himself, it remains high—and many would say, accurate—praise from the man George McGovern once said “reached more readers than any other historian in our national history.”
It’s also a convenient way to encapsulate Burns’s ridiculously prolific 35-year career, spanning from his Oscar-nominated 1981 documentary Brooklyn Bridge and his magnum opus The Civil War all the way to his recent PBS miniseries Jackie Robinson. The SundanceNow Doc Club, a streaming on-demand service dedicated to documentaries and indie films, is currently presenting a retrospective of Burns’s work that allows viewers to stream 11 of his documentary projects.
Burns has, throughout his career, harbored a unique fascination with race in America, and many of the films in the SundanceNow Doc Club collection explore just that, including: Thomas Jefferson, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, and The Central Park Five.
“I’ve been dealing with the question of race in every subject, whether it’s Thomas Jefferson and covering the pre and post-revolutionary period to Jack Johnson in the early 1900s to Jackie Robinson to whatever subject we’re reminded of almost daily these days, particularly in the demagoguery of one of our presidential candidates, that race is still that hot-button issue that we haven’t been able to deal with,” Burns tells The Daily Beast. “Part of the accountability question is that we’re still judging people not on the content of their character, but on the color of their skin—as Dr. King said.”
The Daily Beast spoke to Burns about his storied career, the aforementioned presidential candidate spreading “demagoguery,” and much more.
One of the films included in the retrospective is The Central Park Five, which holds a special place for me as a New Yorker. A lot of young people probably don’t know that Donald Trump took out a hysterical full-page ad at the time calling for the now-innocent kids to receive the death penalty, which inflamed public opinion.
He shamefully took out a full-page ad in all of the New York dailies asking for a restoration of the death penalty for two 14-year-old, two 15-year-old, and one 16-year-old innocent children. While New York State laws would not have permitted their execution, just the fact that there was a rush to judgment ought to be complete evidence of how temperamentally unsuited he is for the office he now seeks.
Do you feel Trump’s rancor was racially motivated? Even when the city recently settled with the kids for $41 million for their wrongful convictions, Trump penned an op-ed calling the settlement a “disgrace” and writing “these men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.” Of course it was [racially motivated]. I found no outrage at the “preppie killer.” The problem was that the initial idea of the crime was that there were these “wilding” black youths—a wolf pack—that attacked this innocent blond woman, and that’s always been the primal fear of Americans as they tolerated slavery and then tolerated Jim Crow. You had newspapers in a progressive northern city sounding like a southern racist newspaper from the 1880s gleefully reporting on a lynching.
Hillary Clinton is somewhat guilty of this mindset as well, however. She did infamously refer to gangs of young black kids as “super-predators” in 1996.
What happens is I think things come into the language and get used by everybody, and it comes back. With anyone who’s been around for a long time, you can dig up stuff like that. I find Donald Trump more of a super-predator. This idea that he can attack and attack and attack whole groups of people, and that we live in a media culture where that’s permitted to be tolerated—it’s the spectacle and not the truth of it. An amoral internet permits a lie to travel around the world three times before the truth can get started, and we live in a place where lying is OK—where a lassitude develops where it doesn’t matter what the truth is—and that’s how it’s possible for someone like him to be advanced who is so clearly temperamentally unsuited and has no idea about governing.
This problem didn’t start with Trump, though. I feel there’s been this undercurrent of racism in this country for quite some time. Trump just lit the fuse.
All through my professional life I have dealt with race as a central subtheme of American life, and how could it not be? The author of our creed who said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” owned other human beings and didn’t see the contradiction or hypocrisy of it, and didn’t see fit to free any of them in his lifetime. It set in motion an American narrative that has constantly had to deal with the question of race. I’ve always gotten a lot of hate mail from people—“You nigger-loving this,” “You nigger-loving that”—and that’s to be expected, but I also had, even among friends and historians and critics, this impatience with my constantly going back to race. When Obama was elected they said, “Now will you shut up?” and I said, “Just you wait.” Right. The election of Obama led to the rise of the Tea Party, which was in part racially motivated. And there are still a lot of foolish people in the country who think the election of Obama means we’re living in a “post-racial America.” The majority of people in the United States of America have, quite correctly and to their credit, elected this man president. But it doesn’t mean that everybody is in this gigantic “Kumbaya” moment that my friends, colleagues, and critics presupposed. It in fact set a lot of people off, which is why the birther movement—which Trump sponsored after trying to execute the innocent children of the Central Park Five—is just a polite way of saying the N-word. It’s just another way to say it. Look, when you have a Republican Party where 54 percent believe that Obama’s not a Christian and he’s a Muslim? I read Christmas messages from distant relatives who talk about him trying to turn the United States Army into the Muslim Army. I mean… what is the Muslim Army?
Your guess is as good as mine. It seems that Trump’s benefitted greatly from the 24-hour news cycle. It used to be that people just read the news, but now TV news is filled with all these ridiculous hot takes to fill up the time. Trump is keenly aware of this.
The problem with our media today is we have no perspective. History provides the ability for calm perspective and rational thinking. Nowhere in the history of the United States has their been a more unqualified person—just ask a historian. And yet, everyone within media gave him all the oxygen that he’s been so starved for. There’s a limit on free speech and we ought to have had the wisdom to not provide the oxygen to this demagogue. This is what happened to Hitler in Germany: he tried out crazy rhetoric and was surprised when nobody pushed back on it so he just kept saying it, doubling and tripling down, and then look what happened to the German people.
One of the films in the SundanceNow retrospective is 1985’s The Statue of Liberty. Given all the anti-immigration hysteria right now between Brexit and Trump, it seems the message of that monument is lost on so many people. In our Prohibition film—which is not part of this—Pete Hamill talked about how metal and alloy is always stronger than its constituent parts, and Americans have known this in their guts that we are strengthened by the energy of new immigrants. Whether it’s the Irish, Germans, Catholics, Jews, or others, new immigrants have always had to face the opprobrium of those who are fearful, but what we’ve allowed in this 24-7 media culture is for that to get out of hand—for the pitchforks to be raised, for the torches to be lit, and for the mob to be assembled. And that is pretty scary. It has always been the tactic of the very rich to get opposing groups of people who are struggling to be against each other rather than to be with each other. If the white blue-collar Americans of the world understood that they had common cause with the large immigrant population—documented or undocumented—as well as African-Americans, that power structure would be incredibly nervous.
It seems the Republican Party has been very good at convincing blue-collar white Americans to vote against their own interests for years. The GOP of late has been the party that opposes bills to help veterans and 9/11 first responders, and is consistently offering tax cuts to the rich. So, like you said, they convince working-class Americans to get riled up about things like terrorism and abortion and immigration instead of issues that more closely affect them. The Republican Party has been extraordinarily successful at getting many groups of people to vote against their self-interest. Evangelicals are voting for Donald Trump. What part of Donald Trump reminds you of Jesus Christ? Trump lusts after his own daughter on national radio, talks about women’s bodies and breasts in such a disparaging way, and mocks them. How is this in any way Christian? When you make the “other” the enemy, how is that Christian?
You’re a very busy man—perhaps one of the busiest filmmakers around. What do you have coming up?
Well, I’m 63 next month and I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life because there’s an urgency there, of doing all the projects you want to do. We’ve got a film called Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War out in September that’s about a Unitarian minister and his wife who saved Jews and other refugees on the eve of World War II. Tom Hanks is the voice of the minister; a 10-part series on the history of the Vietnam War out next year; a series on the history of country music; we’re doing a biography of Ernest Hemingway and a biography of a Mayo Clinic; an urban renewal documentary on the worst neighborhood in Atlanta that got transformed into the best; and a documentary embedded in the New York State prison system filming inmates who are permitted to have access to college and post-graduate education.
Wow. That’s a lot.
We’ve also got a biography of Muhammad Ali that we were working on well before he declined and died.
What approach are you taking in the Muhammad Ali project?
Most of the portraits of Ali have been wonderful, but When We Were Kings was one fight essentially, and we want to try to do—as we did with Jackie Robinson—a comprehensive portrait that also tries to liberate the fighter from a lot of the sentimentality that’s been crust around him. So, as in Jackie Robinson, it turns out Pee Wee Reese did not put his arm around Jackie Robinson in a show of solidarity. It was just made up. It was for all the best intentions, but it was still a myth. We tend to focus on Jackie Robinson only during the years when he’s turning the other cheek, when he’s being what they called a “good negro.” We were more interested in the feisty, competitive person who refused to take a backseat literally in the bus, and in his life metaphorically. We’re hoping to have a complete, nuanced, and dynamic portrait of Ali. It will probably be a two-part, 4-hour thing, but it could easily be longer. You never know.