Ken Burns has been making documentary films for almost 40 years. Since the Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Burns has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, including The Civil War; Baseball; Jazz; The Statue of Liberty; Huey Long; Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery; Frank Lloyd Wright; Mark Twain; Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson; The War; The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; The Roosevelts: An Intimate History; Jackie Robinson; and, most recently, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.
His newest film, The Vietnam War, a 10-part, 18-hour series co-directed by long-time partner Lynn Novick, will air on PBS in September 2017.
A December 2002 poll conducted by Real Screen Magazine listed The Civil War as second only to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North as the “most influential documentary of all time,” and named Ken Burns and Robert Flaherty as the “most influential documentary makers” of all time. In March 2009, David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun said,
Burns is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period. That includes feature filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I say that because Burns not only turned millions of persons onto history with his films, he showed us a new way of looking at our collective past and ourselves.
The late historian Stephen Ambrose said of his films, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”
Burns’ films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including 15 Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards and two Oscar nominations; and in September 2008, at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards, he was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Ken Burns, a PBS mainstay and award-winning documentarian, has responded to criticism around his relationship with the public broadcaster and diversity within the larger documentary community.
Speaking to The New York Times Sway podcast host Kara Swisher for an episode titled, “Is Ken Burns Taking Up Too Much Space?” the creator of popular documentaries Baseball, Jazz, The Civil War and the upcoming Muhammad Ali documentary responded to criticisms around white documentarians like himself being the arbiters of narratives around Black figures. Burns defended his work on projects like Jazz and his latest doc focused on the famous boxer and activist, arguing that as someone who explores American history, he can’t escape covering race.
“My beat is American history and what I found over the years is that every story, regardless of whether it’s obviously this — Muhammad Ali — is going to intersect with race,” he said. “We know when we were founded, and we know why we were founded, we know our catechism: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. I’m a third of the way through the sentence and you have got to stop because the guy who wrote it owned slaves and didn’t see the hypocrisy and didn’t see the contradiction. So you can’t deal with American history, which is what I’m interested in in my heart — I cannot do this without touching on these stories.”
When Burns was asked whether his exclusive deal with PBS through 2022, which has seen him produce more than 200 hours of documentary material for the broadcaster over 40 years, meant he was “taking up the lion’s share of attention” over other documentarians, he rejected the notion that he was “taking up” anything, stating that he represents “a tiny little bailiwick” and “we just make films and we work hard at promoting them and they are successful,” he told Swisher.
After explaining that he receives “proportionately less percentage of my money from PBS than other filmmakers” and that he raises the rest on his own, the director went on to stress that “the popularity of the films” he produces might be playing into the perception that he’s occupying more airtime than others. Being at something for several decades means “you’re gonna accumulate,” according to Burns.
“If you ask how many hours Bill Moyers has, it would be 10 times that amount, right?” he said. “And let’s remember the guy who spoke before Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address spoke for two hours, and Lincoln spoke for two minutes. It doesn’t matter how many hours you have. It’s what’s in those hours or in those minutes.”
Burns’ comments follow a letter sent to PBS executives in March that was signed by almost 140 documentary filmmakers and called on the network to, among several asks, provide data on its staffing diversity over the past decade. The initiative would help provide a clearer picture of who funding has gone to and how many hours of nonfiction programming were directed or produced by Black, Indigenous and People of Color filmmakers.
The letter from Beyond Inclusion followed an essay for the Ford Foundation — which was reprinted in Current magazine — and written by one of the group’s members, filmmaker Grace Lee, calling on PBS to “end its overreliance on Ken Burns as ‘America’s storyteller.’”
“How many other ‘independent’ filmmakers have a decades-long exclusive relationship with a publicly-funded entity?” the letter, which was drafted by Beyond Inclusion, a collective of nonfiction creators, executives and industry figures led by BIPOC individuals, said. “Public television supporting this level of uninvestigated privilege is troubling not just for us as filmmakers but as tax-paying Americans.”
The letter also took to task the general prominence of white filmmakers in documentary, as well as Burns’ more extensive approach to unpacking the history of subjects. “When you program an eight-part series on Muhammad Ali by Ken Burns, what opportunity is there for a series or even a one-off film to be told by a Black storyteller who may have a decidedly different view?” the letter stated.
“Your chief programming executive recently announced an initiative to fund ‘the next generation’ of BIPOC makers but where does that leave the current generation?” the statement continued. “This is about equitable support for BIPOC filmmakers to author their own narratives at all stages of their careers that rival the access and support seen by their white peers.” Burns addressed some of the letter’s criticisms during the podcast, stating that his work is “also addressing the fundamental questions at the heart of the petition” and that white people are also responsible for addressing racism through history.
“Why is it that this country, founded as it was, still 402 years after Africans were forcibly brought to this continent, still can’t get its act together to address it in any meaningful way?” he said. “The expression of that outrage absolutely has to come from all different corners, but it also has to come from people like me as well, saying, ‘We have to stop getting away with this shit.’”
He also pointed to his approach of listening to various nonwhite experts and employing a diverse crew as evidence that his stories aren’t just coming from a white perspective, even if they aren’t being helmed by BIPOC creators.
“It’s also time to listen as well and a good deal of our process is listening to other people. We don’t come in with an idea, we don’t write a script and then find the talking heads to fit in, we permit those talking heads to guide us,” he said. “Obviously our staff are much more diverse than they might have been in the early days in New Hampshire, as you say. Three of the four editors on Ali were people of color, so was the rest of the staff, the advisers, people on camera are dominated by people of color.”
He later added, “Our crew, the people that we work with, are as diverse as you could have. The scholars that advise us are that, and so we feel comfortable about telling these complex stories.”