The Ken Burns Problem

Walt Evans

October 2017

When Ken Burns’s landmark mini-series The Civil War was first broadcast over five nights on PBS in September 1990, it was perhaps the most star-studded documentary ever produced. Morgan Freeman and Sam Waterson voiced Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, respectively, with Arthur Miller as William Tecumseh Sherman and Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman. Jason Robards was Ulysses S. Grant, and George Black his Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee. Unfamiliar with that last actor? George is my great uncle.

He didn’t ask for the part. In 1988 George was serving as the artistic director of a repertory theatre company in Charlottesville, Virginia, when Ric Burns and Stephen Ives, producers of The Civil War, saw his production of The Little Foxes. “Lots of Southern accents in that one,” George remembers today. “So they asked me, ‘Could you arrange for us to have auditions with some of the great actors you’ve got?’” Later, Ken travelled to Charlottesville himself. George was struck by the apparent youth of the soon-to-be world-famous director: “He looked like he was about fourteen.” After the two went out to lunch, Ken pulled George aside and asked him to voice Lee, the last major role still uncast. He never even had to audition.

Soon after, George went up to Burns’s studio in New York to record. He remembers being struck by the “stacks and stacks” of 35-millimeter film reels crowding the room—all of the documentary material to be edited. And he was surprised that there was no interplay with the other actors, though he knew several of them: “You were by yourself in the studio, with a microphone in front of you, and that was it. That was interesting. And Ken always called me General. It was fun.”

I saw The Civil War’s first episode before I knew that George was a part of it. It was in eleventh-grade U.S. History class, first period. I remember the theme music, a mournful violin piece called “Ashokan Farewell,” gently dragging me out of a sixteen-year-old’s indifference. I heard familiar towns mentioned, places I’d visited—Shiloh, Tullahoma, Mobile. When actor Paul Roebling read the last letter that Union soldier Sullivan Ballou ever sent (“Sarah, my love for you is deathless.”), I was surprised to feel chills. Watching The Civil War felt like opening The Lord of the Rings for the first time—like going on a grand adventure in a living, breathing world, with trustworthy hands to guide you.

I watched the series multiple times over the following years, but only learned that George had portrayed Lee over dinner at a Mexican restaurant last year. He and Ken were on a first name basis. They still exchanged Christmas cards. Then the rest of 2016 happened, and 2017 began. What had been a nerdy fun fact started to feel loaded. On Inauguration Day in January, I watched Senator Chuck Schumer quote from the Ballou letter in front of the Capital building. Then Charlottesville, in August: demonstrations surrounding a statue of Lee ended in the murder of Heather Heyer, an innocent advocate for racial equality.

In the wake of Charlottesville, I felt like my uncle’s role in The Civil War was something I shouldn’t mention, as if advertising my indirect connection to Lee potentially allied me with ignorant, hateful, and dangerous people. But reluctance to discuss our complicated past contributes in its own way to the hate that leads people to violence, doesn’t it? That reluctance is precisely what Ken Burns’ films strive to overcome.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out, The Civil War is not an unbiased chronicle. For one thing, it indulges the myth that Lee was opposed to slavery, a dubious allegation at best. To his credit, though, Burns attempts to present an objective history—relying heavily on primary sources like photographs and letters—that we, the audience, are left to interpret. George told me recently that Burns’s pursuit of the middle ground is evident in his directing. “There wasn’t a whole lot of dramatizing,” he said. “The delivery Ken likes is kind of flat.”

For better or worse, Burns’s documentary has become, for many Americans, the predominant history of the Civil War. And we can’t stop talking about it. Two years ago, when PBS rebroadcast the series on its twenty-fifth anniversary, it inspired think pieces in both Time and Newsweek. Like any history, it has flaws and biases; but if it causes us to think about and discuss those biases, that alone may justify its existence.

Last month, PBS premiered Burns and Lynn Novick’s new ten-part film, The Vietnam War. Already it has received both praise and criticism. Perhaps it is futile, in the age of alternative facts, to attempt the establishment of a shared history, an interpretation of events we can all agree on. But in providing an arena to discuss that war, and giving a voice to people who participated in it firsthand, Burns and Novick have created something valuable. We keep trying to understand our past without hurting each other, even when try is all we can do.

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