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Ken Burns Reveals Details of His Never-Made Film

Ken Burns

Complications involving Martin Luther King Jr.‘s family — which ensnared the makers of 2014’s Selma — also led filmmaker Ken Burns to walk away from a projected documentary about the civil rights icon.

“All through the ’90s, I would say, ‘I really want to do something on Martin Luther King,’ ” he said in a March 18 interview. “I think I am programmed to do it because every film I do somehow impacts with race, which is our great subject in America. It’s why the Civil War happened. It’s everything. But I knew that the family had a hard time letting go of him. And then, completely out of the blue, in the early 2000s, I got a letter from the King family, saying, ‘We think you are the best person in the world to do the biography of our husband-father.’ I flew down to Atlanta, and within a few hours, I realized, ‘No, they can’t let go.’ ”

Burns, whose films for PBS include The Civil War and The Roosevelts, said he met with King’s widow, Coretta, and “all the living kids.” He added, “This is a father and a husband they could not control in life. And now in death they are [trying to control him]. I didn’t want to sit before you and begin to make apologies for the film, because it wasn’t what he wanted. So I just kindly backed away. I’d still like to do it.”

The filmmaker said his preoccupation with issues of race (including his documentary Central Park Five, about those falsely found guilty of raping the woman known as the Central Park Jogger) has not been without controversy. “I get a lot of hate mail, a lot of racist hate mail about how I’m a ‘n—er-loving this,’ and more recently it’s become more insidious. [People say] ‘What are you talking about? We have a black president; we’re done with all this. We’re post racial.’ Ha. I mean, all you have to do is just [consider] the litany of what’s happened in the last few years, from Trayvon Martin [on].”

The filmmaker spoke to students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV, where he was a guest in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters, which this season also includes Sean Penn, Clint Eastwood, Gale Anne Hurd, Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke and Quincy Jones.

He also revealed how the loss of his mother when he was 11 years old shaped his future work and made him want to “wake the dead.”

“On April 28, 1965, my mother at 42 years old died after a 10-year battle with cancer,” he said. “We tend to mark these events as traumatic, and in actuality the trauma comes from watching as a little child that process over the previous 10 years. So every moment of my consciousness was informed with the sense that something was terribly wrong with the most important person in [my] life. And it culminated on April 28 when she passed away.”

He continued: “I wasn’t with her when she actually died but very close. She had declined very rapidly. However young I might have been, however helpful it might have been — because my younger brother and I were so intimately involved in the course of her treatment and the science of what she had — I feel robbed to this day of not having had the possibility to say goodbye. I hadn’t experienced it. And in some way, it is like the amputated limb that you still feel and itch long after it’s gone.”

Among upcoming projects, he said, he is working on a two-part biography of Jackie Robinson; a history of Vietnam; a documentary on Ernest Hemingway; and a film about the Bard Prison Initiative, “going in and looking at prisoners who are in for really violent crimes, who are learning about Camus, who speak Mandarin, who are in one of the few places in the United States where there is really college- and graduate-level teaching going on, and they can out-debate West Point.”

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