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Ken Burns talks stars, bars, civil wars
Almost 40 million people saw at least part of The Civil War when Ken Burns’ multipart documentary premiered in September 1990, making it the most-watched PBS broadcast ever. It’s still the record holder, and it’s coming back Monday, September 7, for a special anniversary encore on PBS.
Two things will be different.
First, what viewers will see over the course of five consecutive nights is a newly restored, high-definition version of the Peabody Award-winning series. “The Civil War has never been seen in such visual clarity,” said Daniel J. White, who oversaw frame-by-frame rescanning of 50,000 feet of the original 16mm film negative. “The colors are brighter and you will see more details in the images.”
Second, the political climate in our country is dramatically more polarized. In 1990, The Civil War was embraced almost universally by viewers, regardless of region, its horrifying images, vintage letters read aloud and wistful theme music touching off a long-delayed period of mourning and reflection. Its grand encore is coming at a time when some Southern legislators have made secession threats and the belated removal of a Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house – this in reaction to a white supremacist’s shooting rampage at a black church – ignited a bitter debate about the meaning of that flag and even the causes of the war.
With this climate in mind, my Peabody colleague Matt Shedd interviewed Burns about his most famous documentary and how times have changed since the original showing.
Matt Shedd: You’ve talked about how this restored version is a “revelation visually.”
Ken Burns: It’s a “revelation” meaning that you’re returning to something you already knew. Essentially this looks as good as what I looked through the viewfinder and saw. So what I looked through the viewfinder and saw – whether it was a cannon on a hillside or an interview or the thousands of archives and newspapers that we used to tell the story – they got exposed on a tiny 16 millimeter film. And that had a great deal of grain, a great deal of image instability. It lacked the color palette that I was seeing and now we’ve got it. It just feels like something from 25-plus years ago just dropped in my lap again. It’s very exciting.
MS: Since you made it, have there been photos uncovered that you wanted to include or any other sort of documentation?
KB: Well, it was estimated that over a million photographs were taken in the Civil War period, but that only 125,000 exist of different images. There are many copies of some of the images, of course. I probably looked at 100,000, so every once in a while I come across one. But it’s interesting, unlike most of the films I’ve made where after it’s done, you stumble across an archive and you go, “Jeez, I really wanted to have that one for the Statue of Liberty” or whatever it was. With this one I go, “Oh yeah, that’s it. It was taken the same day as what we had and I think we’re okay.” So, you know, stuff comes out, but there’s not that kind of envy that you wish you could go and open up the film again. Nor did we tinker with the film’s content in any way.
MS: It doesn’t sound like you were sitting there kicking yourself when you were watching it on the big screen.
KB: The film we made is the film we made, and because I’m so fortunate to work in public broadcasting, the film that I release is the director’s cut. Nobody said: make it longer, make it shorter, make it sexier, make it less sexy, make it more violent, make it less violent. I’ve been able to make the films I wanted to make and have been able to release it.
It is an accurate representation, but not just of me, because this is such a gloriously collaborative medium, and I think the Peabody celebrates that. It’s also a really accurate representation of the collective team that put it together, whether it’s the writer Jeff Ward, my brother Rick, who is a co-producer, the editor, Paul Barnes who I’m still working with today
MS: When it came out in 1990, were there complaints about the film having some sort of slant or emphasis?
KB: We felt pretty good about the people who criticized it. I mean we had two enemies in the film. One was slavery. The other, I’m only half serious, is George McClellan, the timid Union General. And, you know, a timid general is music to the ears of any mother, so I’m not sure how much you can call him a villain.
But we didn’t think slavery was a good thing, particularly for Americans to be involved in, and made it clear from the opening scene. But, you know, the war has been obscured. The causes of the war and the contents of the war. . . have been obscured and romanticized and sentimentalized and actually changed in our popular culture, particularly in films. Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind both suggest that the Ku Klux Klan, which is our original homegrown terrorist organization, was somehow a positive force in the Civil War and its aftermath in Reconstruction, and that’s crazy. And our film says so.
A lot of people believe that there were causes other than slavery of the Civil War, and to some lesser, secondary extent, they’re right. But the principal cause — and you can go check South Carolina’s articles of secession, the first state to secede, the state that was the hotbed of that fire-eating secession-itis — it didn’t mention states’ rights. It didn’t mention nullification. It didn’t mention cultural or economic or political differences, which we talk about. It mentioned slavery, over and over again. And that’s why the war happened.
And I think, you know, the criticism we got was on the extreme right, if you will, and on the extreme left, which means we’ve done a good job. The extreme left said that we followed too much Lincoln and not enough of the radical Republicans in Congress who were changing the nature of American society, transforming lives of African Americans.
MS: Do you anticipate that it’s going to touch a nerve in light of recent events?
KB: Yes, oh very much so. This is what I’ve said all along: the main American theme, if you will, is about freedom, the tensions between, say, individual freedom and collective freedom, states’ rights versus a strong federal government.
But the next biggest theme in American life is race. We were founded on the idea, articulated in the second sentence of the Declaration [of Independence], “that all men are created equal.” The guy who wrote that sentence owned other human beings and he didn’t see the hypocrisy in the contradiction. And so we have an American narrative that’s constantly having to deal with or pretending that it doesn’t exist – this question of race.
The most important event in our history, without a doubt, is the Civil War. Everything that came to foot kind of funneled inexorably towards the Civil War, and everything since, in ways sort of obvious and not so obvious, has been a consequence of it.
So yeah, when we debate the Confederate flag or see the pernicious racism that still persists in this land, the Civil War has a lot to speak to us about. I think that we can have a much more intelligent conversation about these issues by including the past in it because human nature doesn’t change. It superimposes itself on the random chaos and so we begin to perceive patterns and cycles of history. No one is condemned to repeat what they don’t remember. It’s just that human nature remains the same. And so almost all of the films that I make focusing entirely on just telling a good story, not on scoring political points or advocating something, nothing. Just telling a story well always has a resonance in the present.
And so, what is the Civil War about? It’s about an imperial presidency. It’s about unscrupulous military contractors. It’s about race. It’s about the symbols of America being interpreted and reinterpreted differently by other people. It’s about weapons, new weapons, that create mass casualties on a scale never before imagined, and then you think, “Jeez, isn’t that what we’re talking about now?”
I like the possibility of having an intelligent national conversation because we don’t actually have conversations; we just have shouting matches between people who talk over and at rather than with other people. And so if you live in a society in which everything is always on the divide between rich and poor, between young and old, between North and South, between East and West, between gay and straight, between red states and blue states, you don’t get anywhere. But if you realize that Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly both genuinely love Abraham Lincoln, then you’ve got a place to start.
MS: You mentioned conversation versus shouting match. What would you call what’s going on about the Confederate flag?
KB: We actually had a good thing. I mean, I’m very, very sorry. It’s a tragedy that it took the loss of nine human beings to force us into understanding that this was not, you know, people holding onto their heritage.
That Confederate flag was one of the many flags of the Confederacy. It was used, and it appears in paintings and in photographs, but it was not the prominent flag of the Confederacy. The official flag was called the Stars and Bars. It flew over Fort Sumter, for example, when Fort Sumter surrendered at the very beginning of the war, not the Dixie flag.
That (one) came into prominent use after 1954. And what happened in 1954? The Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal was unconstitutional. That school desegregation had to take place. And that Confederate flag has worked its way into the state flags of many of the states of the old Confederacy. And has worked its way back out again, I’m happy to say, with the exception of Mississippi. And of course, it’s been with us for years in the courthouses and in the state capitol grounds.
And, as you know, the Alabama governor removed his and the state legislature in South Carolina finally, after the prompting of their governor, removed it in the wake of this tragedy, understanding that this was a symbol not of heritage, not of history, but of resistance to civil rights, which is saying, “Guess what? We don’t believe that all men are created equal. We think some people, based on the lighter pigmentation of their skin, are more equal than others.”
We had a good conversation about it, and symbols are hugely important, but for us to go forward as a country, and the recent political noise that’s going on has taken a few steps back, we’re going to have engage tougher issues. I mean just yesterday I saw a news report that a statue of Jefferson Davis had been removed from a campus in Austin, Texas. They’re debating the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee’s Circle in New Orleans. He has absolutely nothing to do with New Orleans other than he represents the Confederacy.
The cause for which the Confederacy fought was the perpetuation of chattel slavery in a country that had been founded four score and five years before on the idea that all men are created equal. It’s a hypocrisy the United States could not tolerate. And look, let’s be really honest, we ended up murdering 750,000 of our own people over this issue. That’s a big deal. All the other wars we’ve fought in from the Revolution forward through the most recent fight against ISIS — all of the dead don’t add up to the Civil War dead, by far. It’s a terrifying thing and in a very young country. We’ve now got 350, 375 million people or whatever it is. We were only 31 million when the Civil War happened and we lost 750,000. That’s like losing 6, 7, 8 million people in a battle today, you know?
MS: So, with everything from Michael Brown to the massacre at the church in Charleston: Are these examples of the Civil War still being fought?
KB: Well, let’s be really careful about it. At the very end of the film, the historian Barbara Fields says, “the Civil War is still going on and can be still lost.” She doesn’t mean that in the sense that these are coordinated armies but in the sense that the same struggle — that people are still, because of the color of their skin, denied the equal opportunities that other people have. In a way, all of the ingredients that went into the Civil War are also still present. And we’ve made enormous progress. We have an African American president, but we also see the price he had to pay for the color of his skin.
When Donald Trump starts talking about the ‘birther’ thing, it’s just a polite way of saying the n-word. When Scott Walker says, “I don’t know if he’s a Christian,” that’s another way of saying the n-word. We’ve always employed codes when we’ve found out that civil society doesn’t tolerate boorish behavior, and we’ve found ways to continue to perpetuate that boorish behavior. And that’s the American mission. How do you escape the specific gravity of that inability to see beyond someone’s skin color?
My whole work, I mean I don’t go looking for race, but I think out of the 27, 28 films – however many that I’ve made, all on American history — , I think there’s one on Frank Lloyd Wright, another on the first cross country automobile trip and maybe the Dust Bowl where race wasn’t a significant factor in the story.
And so it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere. So we need to realize that. We have to come to terms with it. Wynton Marsalis in the Jazz film said, “It’s like the mythology. It’s the thing that the kingdom needs in order to be well again.” Which is a beautiful way of saying: when we solve this, we transcend it. And we do in moments.
Like every other country on Earth, we have lots of work to do. And we’ve probably gone farther than any other country, you know? I invite you to go to Brooklyn or Queens and see how religions and races and peoples get along. Pretty well.