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Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns brings work to the Michigan

By Max Radwin, Daily Fine Arts Editor
Published March 20, 2013

The Penny W. Stamps Speaker Series welcomes documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to the Michigan Theater this Thursday. Burns and Daniel Okrent (a former editor of The Michigan Daily) will show a series of film clips while discussing race in the United States, a topic that remains significant to the University’s student body, to Americans everywhere and, especially after recent legal battles with the city of New York regarding the 2012 documentary “The Central Park Five,” to Burns and Florentine Films, as well.

Burns will use clips from films stretching across almost the entirety of his career. Some of them deal with race head-on like “The Civil War” and “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” while the other two films — “The Statue of Liberty” and “Jazz” — use race as a lens through which to view, and better understand, a larger American phenomenon. For Burns, the subject is an integral part of the American identity and is almost unavoidably relevant in any film about its history.

“More often than not, it’s easier to count the films that don’t have any relationship to race,” Burns said. “(Race is) only included because it’s there. When you scratch the surface of American history, you touch a question of race.”

Burns’s films, dealing largely with historical subject matter, tend to look backward rather than forward. But in looking backward, one can more clearly see the issues at hand in the present day.

“A hugely important understanding that I arrived at fairly early in my professional life is that human nature remains the same,” Burns said. “In times when we’ve lost the ability to have a civil discourse … the value of history increases because history is still a table around which we can agree to cohere.”

Burns’s most recent film, “The Central Park Five,” which screens on Saturday during the 51st Ann Arbor Film Festival, became a strange joining of historical and current events in a different way. New York City subpoenaed Burns as well as co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon for the project’s unused footage, thinking that it would help defend against the still-ongoing, $250-million civil rights lawsuit that the five men filed after being exonerated from the 1989 rape of Trisha Meili.

In addition to chronicling those 1989 events, the film attempts to uncover the identities of the five men involved (four of whom were black, the other Hispanic and all under 17 years of age) whose humanity was seemingly taken from them at the time.

“The language of a liberal progressive city at the end of the 20th century was the language of Jim Crow’s southern newspapers of the late 19th century,” Burns said. “That’s what’s chilling — is that these same racial tropes, these same racial stereotypes, these same racial codes and phrases can be used a century later in what would seemingly be a place of forgiveness.”

The city of New York justified its subpoena on the grounds that the film was a one-sided advocacy piece. Burns and his co-directors disagreed — as did a federal judge, who blocked the city’s subpoena on Feb. 19.

“It’s a victory for journalists and filmmakers everywhere,” Burns said, “because it does add an extra layer of protection in an area where the courts have been more often disposed to prying into journalists’ notes.”

While the court’s decision is a victory for documentarians everywhere, Burns recognizes the more pressing matters at hand.

“It’s sort of heroic that filmmakers are subpoenaed and I suppose even more heroic that they have at least temporarily prevailed,” he said. “But the most important story is that we are approaching the 10-year mark on the civil suit for five young men … and still, there is this gigantic, gaping hole in their childhood that hasn’t, in some ways, been resolved.”

Even though their own minor trials have come to a close, Burns and Florentine Films are as busy as ever, working on a 14-hour, seven-part history of the Roosevelt family to be released in 2014, a one-off story about Jackie Robinson for their “Baseball” series in 2015 and a documentary about the Vietnam War set for 2016. As for how Florentine Films will approach documenting these three historical events, Burns said, “You can believe that race is an integral part.”

Burns has also been in discussion with HBO through Tom Hanks’s company Playtone to produce a dramatic series about the life of the boxer Jack Johnson, which, after the success of the 2005 documentary, Burns sees as “ripe for dramatic treatment.”

Concerning his role in the actual filming of the series, Burns only said laughingly, “I’m keeping my day job.”