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Filmmaker Ken Burns at Collegiate: Race a central subtheme in US history

Ken Burns

(Richmond Times Dispatch) – Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns revealed to a group of high school students in Henrico County on Thursday what he considers the second most powerful sentence in the English language: the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.

Burns noted that the sentence begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

However, that sentence written in 1776 is entrenched with hypocrisy, considering its author was a slaveholder, Burns said. And in reflecting on his highly esteemed American history documentaries, Burns said the matter of race in America has continuously surfaced.

“Remember that Thomas Jefferson, the Virginian who wrote those words, owned more than a hundred human beings as he wrote it,” Burns told a theater full of students at Collegiate School on Thursday.

“It was a monumental contradiction of course and a monumental hypocrisy.”

That contradiction set in motion a country that has always been dealing with the question of race, Burns said.

“I don’t go looking for this subtheme in American life, but it is there,” he said of race.

As for the most powerful sentence in the English language, Burns said: “The first one, of course, is ‘I love you.’ ”

For decades, Burns has made in-depth documentaries about American history, covering everything from the Civil War to baseball to Prohibition. He said he will release an 18-hour documentary in 2017 about the Vietnam War, a project he began working on about 10 years ago. About 1,000 hours’ worth of film has been sifted through, the Emmy Award winner and two-time Oscar nominee said.

Burns, who became a filmmaker after graduating from college in 1975, first received widespread acclaim and notice for “The Civil War” on PBS in 1990, a nine-part series that was the highest-rated and most celebrated documentary in public television’s history.

The filmmaker said he has always focused on American history, “trying to get at some very elementary questions about who we are as a people, what makes us tick … and to tell the fascinating stories of this most extraordinary of countries.”

“I feel like I have the best job in the world,” he said.

Collegiate senior Emily Spalding, who introduced Burns, said she has long been inspired by him.

“His fearlessness and bold, unorthodox stylistic choices have now become such an integrated part of American film,” she said.

On Thursday, Burns highlighted the importance of telling stories through the eyes of those who were involved in key events in American history, as opposed to relying mostly on historians.

Spalding said she also admires Burns for staying true to his passion of making documentaries despite having been presented with opportunities to take his talents to Hollywood.

Burns spent much of the afternoon talking with students at Collegiate, a private school in western Henrico.

Later Thursday, he spoke at the Greater Richmond Convention Center for “Sharing the American Experience.” The program was part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the school.

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