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Ken Burns on Jackie Robinson, the Rose Parade, and Race in America

Ken Burns

(The Creators Project) – The wildly prolific documentarian Ken Burns often uses the 19th-century phrase “With the bark on” to define a plain-spoken approach or character, and it’s fitting that the description might mirror the producer/director’s nearly 40-year career as well. Having begun with the Oscar-nominated Brooklyn Bridge, Burns consistenly offers iconic, expansive documentaries with bark intact, starting with titles (Baseball, The Civil War, The Dust Bowl) and then into his forthright, intimate investigations of American history.

A year that saw Burns in production on ten films, includingJackie Robinson, Vietnam, and Country Music will renew with a bit of gaiety. On January 1st he will serve as the Grand Marshal of Pasadena’s classic Rose Parade, following in the footsteps of previous GMs like George Lucas, Carol Burnett, and Kermit the Frog. With a “Find Your Adventure” theme celebrating the centennial anniversary of the US National Park Service, it makes sense that Burns, an honorary park ranger who directed The National Parks in 2009, would head up this year’s proceedings. In advance of his duties, The Creators Project recently spoke to Burns over the phone.

The Creators Project: As someone who’s chronicled the major shifts in United States history, where do the Rose Parade’s origins in 1890 fit within the nation’s larger context? Do you have a personal connection to it?

Ken Burns: As a boy I grew up in Delaware watching the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl on TV, and I’m so honored and awestruck right now being caught up in it. Like everything in American history, it has a complicated backstory—it represents a kind of boosterism in a time of great upheaval. But there’s no other time in US history where you couldn’t also say that. I think what the parade represents is commonwealth, a tradition of things that we hold in common, which feels particularly important today living in a media culture that’s entirely disposable and distracted.

Recently you directed The Address, centered on a school for children with learning disabilities who each year memorize the Gettysburg Address. You used a cinéma vérité style that’s unlike your signature approach—how was that experience?

Well I live about 20 minutes as the crow flies from that Vermont school, Greenwood. About 15 years ago I’d been invited to be a judge for that event, and I was so impressed with these kids, thinking, “How many of us can memorize something this complicated, with these ten intricate sentences?” And then to have a learning disability and do that, I just thought, “Someone should make a film about this.” And after coming back each year for different reasons I finally said, “Well why the hell don’t I just do this?” So we embedded in the school for three months, until the kids forgot we were even there.

I’ve hit my 60s and I’m doing ten films at once right now. A few have that more vérité style, so I feel happy to be an old dog learning new tricks. On that note, I’ve got a film coming up on Jackie Robinson, a two-part film that almost feels like it’s torn from today’s headlines, with talk of Confederate flags, driving while black, cop on black violence, all sorts of events that are currently part of the African American narrative.

With increasingly consistent events like this week’s non-indictment of Timothy Loehmann in the case of Tamir Rice’s killing, are you constantly in a state of déjà vu?

Every single time. We’re really fond of saying history repeats itself, that we’re condemned to repeat what we don’t remember. That’s very poetic; it’s also nonsense. But human nature never changes. Ecclesiastes gets it right: there’s nothing new under the sun. Studying the past is not some simple, safe exercise in things that are long gone. Let me tell you about a film I did a few years ago. It was about single-issue political campaigns with horrible consequences. It was about the demonization of recent immigrant groups to the US. It was about a whole group of people who felt they lost control of the country they’d previously dominated and wanted to take it back. These were themes that resonated in Prohibition [Burns’ 2011 film].

You’d say, “Prohibition? That’s about gangsters and flappers.” Yes, those are the superficial, sexy and dangerous things, but the much more interesting stuff is the way those events resonate today. So when you say Tamir Rice, I can’t really talk about Tamir Rice for another 25 years. But I can say that it doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve been watching the events going back to Emmett Till, the Scottsboro Boys, and thousands of other moments in American history.

And that’s definitely stayed consistent in your work: the central place of race at the core of the United States.

Since events like Tamir Rice are happening every day in America, and America is not very focused on that, it tells me that my concentration—unintentional by the way—on digging deep into race in American history is absolutely correct. I’ve had people and hate mail for years asking why I haven’t let go. I’m not pursuing it—it’s there. And if you don’t understand that race is a central sub-theme in American life, then you’re pretending some sanitized, Madison Ave. version of history. It’s what we have to deal with. It’s been called our original sin.

With [Jackie Robinson], our story differs from the idea that he was behaving like a black man should, by turning the other cheek and taking the abuse. What nobody said is, “Wait, what about that abuse?” Some of the tropes we’ve built up around him just aren’t true. Like Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie’s shoulder. I mean, there’s children’s books written about that. Didn’t happen. That was just made up so that we could have, no pun intended, skin in the game, so white people could feel good about Jackie’s narrative. And the second Jackie didn’t have to do all that, and didn’t, he was an uppity you-know-what. That’s the actual story: how this guy had a incredibly fiery temperament, as well as a spirit to play in the major and minor leagues. He was a guy who got up every day and tried to make the lives of other people better.

How do gradually surfacing events like that, or Robinson’s court-martial for refusing to move to the back of a bus, change your coverage of the topic?

Well, we have a revisionism in which we kind of get jaded and cynical. We know there’s some dust under the carpet, so we see everything in this negative light. The problem then is that you’re not permitted to fully celebrate the things that have gone right. For example if you listen to the current political theme, you’d think that the United States government is the worst force for evil in the world, when in fact I’d argue the opposite. Has it fucked up? Royally, as it’s done an innumerable amount of times in the past. But if you consider the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the land grants, Emancipation Proclamation, the Homestead Act, the National Parks, the Interstate Highway—you’re looking at unbelievable contributions to humanity.

Is the Voting Rights Act under attack now? Yes it is, and we need to talk about it. But we can also say, in the same breath, that something like the Tournament of Roses and the Rose Parade permits a few hours of commonwealth. And that’s a wonderful thing in this environment of dialectically preoccupied times. There’s some stuff we can look at and have it not matter. When I go to a ball game, I don’t wonder if the guy next to me is voting for someone that I’m not.

What does last week, for example, look like when you’re working on ten films?

The projects are all in different stages. I’m promoting this Jackie Robinson film while shooting a biography of Ernest Hemingway. I just locked a ten-part, 18-hour film on Vietnam, which will easily be the most controversial thing we’ve done. I just did an interview with Willie Nelson for Country Music, and raising money for a couple other films. I just had a production meeting on one about the history of the Mayo Clinic. And then I’m serving on a couple as executive producer, which means I’ve got less of a day-to-day role on them but no less responsibility. Also, you might remember that prison debate team that beat Harvard’s a little while back? We filmed that. We were embedded with that prison program for two years, and the only film crew allowed in.

What are your feelings each time a tribute or parody comes out aping your style, the latest of which used Star Wars to make its mark?

Oh, they’ve been pretty common over the past 25 years. I mean, what is style? Style is just the authentic application of technique, and it can obviously be parodied and made fun of. I consider it a sign that it’s legitimate. Even when people say, “Aren’t your feelings hurt?” I say, “Absolutely not.” There’s always an element of truth in it and that’s good. I’m a big boy that can take it.

The 127th Rose Parade featuring Ken Burns will kick off on January 1, 2016 in Pasadena, CA. For more information visit tournamentofroses.com/rose-parade.

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