Q&A: Preparing to air remastered ‘Civil War,’ Ken Burns says conflict holds lessons for todayKen Burns
(Winnipeg Free Press) – Ken Burns is looking back at his series “The Civil War” as PBS prepares to air a remastered edition 25 years after the network first aired the landmark 1990 documentary.
“It speaks to what we’re going through today,” Burns says of the series which is being aired for five consecutive nights from Sept. 7 through 11 (check local listings for time).
The filmmaker recently sat down with The Associated Press to discuss how race remains an explosive American topic:
Associated Press: You say the ideas of the “The Civil War” documentary are “evergreen.” What do you mean?
Ken Burns: Everything that has come before us — our history — has delivered us to this moment. … As we struggle to understand the horrific church shootings in Charleston, the birthplace of succession, or in Ferguson, in Missouri, where the greatest loss of civilian life over the issue of slavery took place in the history of the United States, what can we learn from the past that will help us put into perspective what’s going now? And you find often, not always, that race is a particularly hot-button issue for people to talk about.
AP: How does knowledge of the Civil War help decipher the debate over the Confederate flag?
Burns: That offensive Confederate flag was one of one of several battle flags of the army of Northern Virginia, not the only army of the Confederacy. … The official flag of the Confederacy was called The Stars and Bars. Nobody has any problem with that. The Confederate flag came into use after 1954. It went into state flags, Southern state flags and in other places, and the only thing that happened in 1954 that I recall was Brown vs Board of Education. … What that means is that the use of the Confederate flag, on the back of pickup trucks, flying in the yard of the state capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, is resistance to Civil Rights (and) saying actually we don’t believe what the Americans were founded on, that all men are created equal.
AP: How does history come into play when it comes to a situation like Ferguson?
Burns: Ferguson was a boiling pot for an awfully long time before (Michael) Brown was killed. That’s something that people have to understand and that’s what historians do. We don’t just take this sort of hot, incandescent moment and say, ‘Ah, this is all it is.’ You sort of average out all the stuff that’s been going on and try to come to some understanding about it.”
AP: You say you see analogies between slavery and the current immigration debate. Why do you think the issue is such a hot topic among Republican presidential candidates?
Burns: The reason why the rhetoric has gotten so exceptionally vitriolic is because there’re so many people vying for attention. It’s me, me, me, me, me and that reflects an essential narcissism on the part of our political process. We live in a narcissistic culture, we have these things called reality shows, which are the exact opposite of reality and you have (Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump) running for president who is an experienced reality show (person), a narcissist of the first order and he’s appealing to that narcissistic side in people.
AP: How has the remastering changed “The Civil War”?
Burns: What you’re seeing in there is much greater detail in old archives. … There’s image stabilization. The colours — the iconic image that people remember from ‘The Civil War’ — is a cannon silhouetted on a sunset with a smear of orange. Well, that turns out to be purple and red and yellow as well as orange and blue and black and grey and all shades in between. That’s now in there. The film I’m looking at, the film we’ve just restored, looks like what I saw through the viewfinder, which is an incredible gift, not just to me, but I think to our audience, who deserves to see the new details.