Ken Burns Weighs In on Ferguson and Facebook Activism

If you ever went to this thing called school, chances are you’ve watched a Ken Burns film or three. You might think that you no longer have to sit through that kind of thing, but you probably should.

by Jonathan Peltz
Aug 25 2014, 9:00pm

Ken Burns visiting the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Photo courtesy the FDR Library Presidential Library and Museum 

If you ever went to this thing called school, chances are you’ve watched a Ken Burns film or three. You all know the deal: 12 hours of celebrities waxing nostalgic over old photos while you stare at a cute classmate across the room until you zone out and forget you’ve been glaring right into his/her eyes for 20 minutes straight. Then, ashamed, you turn back to the Ken Burns movie about whatever Americana thingy.

You might think that you no longer have to sit through that kind of thing now that you’re a grown-up. The truth is that Ken Burns is a difference maker in our country. I don’t care if you think his style is dated compared with Austrian miserabalism or Yugoslav black wave or whatever other cool film genre you’ve been getting into lately.

He’s really the only artist in our country doing these kinds of effective and ambitious tomes on our culture, and his movies are screened in public schools thousands of times a day. Our kids will be growing up on Ken Burns. Get used to it. Burns recently completed a seven-year project on the Roosevelt family, unsurprisingly titled The Roosevelts, that captures Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor as a single narrative. It will be airing September 14 through the 20 on PBS, and will be available streaming on September 15 through PBS.

Ken Burns, the dude, is also a laser-focused, encyclopedic firecracker of an interview. I got to catch up with him at the Telluride Film Festival. (He cusses once, so get ready.)

VICE: How do you think your type of filmmaking fits into today’s world? I mean someone can just look up the Roosevelts on Wikipedia. Do you still think people want to watch a 14-hour piece?
Ken Burns: I actually think it works extraordinarily well now. I was told in 1990, when The Civil War came out, that nobody would watch. Back then I was told we lived in an MTV generation of quick cutting. It was the highest-rated program in the history of PBS. Then, 17 years later, we did a history of World War II, The War, and people said we live in the YouTube generation now and nobody would watch it. It’s a huge thing. All meaning accrues in duration. That doesn’t mean we can’t be distracted by little flies on the wall all the time. The important thing now is that people have so many platforms. People binge-watch all the time now. I feel completely vindicated. People think nothing about digesting half a season of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black or half The Roosevelts. Let's not forget that the people that are supposed to be the worst at this, kids, actually line up and stay up all night to get a Harry Potter book, of which there are seven. All of them are "longer" than any film I’ve ever made. All meaning accrues in duration.

You said on Letterman that you feel there is a clutter of information. Do you think that makes it—or will make it—more difficult to sift through a topic and make a film out of it? Like say you were going to make a piece on Ferguson. Would that be impossible?
I’m in the history business. Usually that means you need a couple of decades of triangulation. I don’t think it’s that. I just think there’s so much clutter that we tend to default to accepting conventional wisdom. If I say the 1920s, a couple of associations come to you and that’s it. Well, I’ve gone through the 1920s in about seven or eight different films, and each version of the 20s is entirely different and entirely complex and interesting. If you have an avalanche of information, all you can do is, you know, go to the Huffington Post and just sort of scan for a while. What did you just look at?

You won’t know.
You won’t know. So how do we not only access information but curate it in a way that’s beneficial to us, and in a way that will stick? What we’re finding as the antidote to all of that is these longform things. They want to be involved in things that offer continuity—like reading a book by fireside or candlelight. It may seem anachronistic and romantic to us now, but it’s not. We crave this kind of self-sustaining stuff. When you watch a third of a season of House of Cards in an evening, what you’re doing is you’re saying, “I wish to be alone with myself.” As opposed to what we were doing with an iPad, and a call coming in, and also watching TV. We’re not there. We want to be there.

You also once said that my generation suffers from a “poverty of spirit.” What did you mean?
We don’t have shared sacrifice anymore. We all feel like that we are independent free agents. And we’re not. We’re bound to each other in ways that are obvious and ways that are more subtle. I think that as a country we’re able to get things that when we feel like we have a connection to each other than when we don’t. I’m very much interested in those moods like the New Deal, or World War II, where we have all our oars pulling in the same direction.

So when you see things like the ALS Challenge or something...
I just did it today!

Nice! Is that kind of Facebook activism an extension of the same idea?
It’s a kind of yearning for community that we have. Too often, the thing that stops is a great tragedy. Like a Ferguson. Or, worse, a 9/11. So we yearn for these things—that’s why cute cat videos are important, or “Charlie Bit My Finger,” whatever the current thing may be—we realize the emotion and the values implicit in our watching are shared by everybody else. And we’re drawn to that. It’s not a red- or blue-state, a rich or poor, a gay or straight phenomenon. It’s a human phenomenon. So the Ice Bucket Challenge represents a novel way—in a classic internet fashion—to have something exponentially radiate out, like a rock dropping in a pond. There’s now tens of thousands of people participating in it, and that can do only one thing: improve the ALS situation. But it also binds us back to each other. We’re too cool for shared sacrifice. And I love these things that interrupt our coolness. The idea that however we like to present ourselves can be completely undone by pouring ice over our head.

It’s paradoxical, though. Because without the media clutter you talked about before, none of that could happen.
It couldn’t happen. There were things back in the day like a kid getting stuck in a mine. And the entire media of the United States—telegraphs, newspapers, and radio—would contain it. We’re the same human beings. Human nature never changes. We just superimpose the randomness—in this case, whatever we’ve inherited technologically. So we still have these things where we think, let’s do this together.

The author and Ken Burns

Do you see any parallels between what’s going on in Ferguson and the Central Park Five?
Yeah, this has been going on since 1619 in the United States. And it’s fucking time that it stops. And that’s what the people in Ferguson are saying. It’s enough. You have 53 cops on your police force and 50 of them are white in a predominantly black city. They leave a body on the ground for six hours. I mean, this is what’s been going on to African Americans since this country was formed and before that. In 1619 the first slaves were brought to the United States. And it’s just absurd. I’ve been mining American history for my entire professional life, and race comes up all the time. And Ferguson is people just saying, “Enough!”

So it seems like Ferguson is an issue that we’ve all been able to rally behind. Do you think it’s just a trend and people are going to forget about it in a few weeks? Or will there be progress?
We have an African American president: there’s progress. But it’s not enough. When we base people on the color of their skin and not the content of their character, as Dr. King said, then we’re in big trouble. And we won’t be out of that trouble until we escape the specific gravity of racism. Which might be part of human nature. I hope not. But African Americans have spent too long in this country as second-class citizens, no matter what the law says. And now we have a Supreme Court very willing to roll back some of these things in terms of voting rights and civil rights stuff. When you combine that with the continual poison of racism in the air—whether it’s Cliven Bundy or Donald Sterling or just people threatening the president—it’s just enough.

Do you think Obama’s doing enough about Ferguson?
What is it that he can do? This is at the hearts and minds of human beings. If you look at a lynching photograph from the 1920s or 30s, you’re always drawn to the body and it just seems so impossibly cruel that American citizens could be doing this to other American citizens. And yet it happened 2,500 times over a couple of decades. But the people there: The white audience is smiling and laughing. There’s been a special train added so people can come down and watch this hanging or burning and mutilation of a human being. But there are children there, and they’re smiling too! Those children are alive today. And what are they teaching their children? And their grandchildren?

That question was kind of stupid. I meant to ask if Obama should have acted earlier to replace the police with the national guard.
No, I don’t think so. And it was actually the governor’s call for the National Guard to come out. He has to walk a very fine line. He has to be the president of all the people. He can’t just suddenly look like he’s only interested in African Americans. It’s a dicey thing. But this is one in which it should be the rest of us. It should be our outrage. The old thing from the 60s Civil Rights Movement—you don’t want to keep your boot on top of people just because you can. We’ve got a new Jim Crow. We’ve filled our prisons with as many young black men as we can. Just to keep them away from us. We live in our own gated communities. We scare ourselves to death through the media, which heightens the sense that it’s all around us when it’s not. Our drama often portrays African Americans in really menial or criminal positions. It’s self-fulfilling. If you leave someone impoverished and with no way out... are you surprised that bad things happen? You don’t hear about white people with their hands up in the air being shot several times.

In Miami, there was just a thing where Ray Allen’s house got broken into by a bunch of kids, and the cops didn’t even arrest them because they were like, “Meh, didn’t try to steal anything.” And then Ray’s lawyer was like, “Wait a minute…” I mean if those were black kids...
They’d be dead. And if he’d shot them, Ray Allen would be on trial. We’ve gotten to the point where we have to say enough. And if we say that we want liberty and justice for all, then we’ve gotta mean it.

Are you at all disappointed in Obama’s presidency?
Not at all. I’m disappointed in our inability to compromise.

I watched some of The Roosevelts. My favorite part was when Teddy told his political opponent he was going to kick him in the dick.
Kick him in the balls.

Do you wish there was more of that in modern politics?
Teddy’s a little bit hot and unstable. And no, I don’t think that gets anything done. I think what you’ve seen is the polarization of that. Stuff happens at the level of local legislators that we don’t hear about and filters up once that person gets more prominent. What we need are people pointing toward what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature,” which is taking the high road. It’s not assuming that the other is bad. Figuring out what compromise is. That’s the genius of America, and we’ve forgotten how to do it. It’s like we’ve lost our keys. When it broke down before, the Civil War happened, and we murdered 750,000 of our own people. If you want that again then just keep not compromising.

Where do you think a country’s moral compass comes from?
I think it comes from an essential fairness. It comes from a sense of individual freedom—and how everyone parses that a little bit differently. Some people see it in an absolute, Old Testament kind of way, which means no government. These are the people who are going to die in 9/11 and when their house is on fire. And then they want the government to come in. They want their government to be bombing ISIS right now, and this, that, and the other thing. I made a film on the Dust Bowl. It was a very conservative area of Oklahoma and North Texas, and it got so desperate that they begged the federal government to come in and intercede. Ideology goes out the window. Ideology is a luxury of convenience. When times are tough, you’ll be very happy to take a liberal democrat as your president to buy back your dying cattle. If you’re starving, and your kids are starving, then it’s not a bad deal.

So you’re close friends with Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
No, not Errol. I know him, but I’m friends with Werner.

That’s three very different styles of filmmaking.
I love Errol’s stuff. I don’t know what he thinks about mine. I adore Werner. I think he loves my work. We sometimes take our show on the road. We did something last fall at Dartmouth. Where we traded choruses, like a jazz band, showing bits and pieces of our work.

Do you ever have the urge of doing a film like that, where it’s far more subjective?
Everything is subjective. I don’t know how Werner would describe Errol. He’s always said that the truth he is seeking is an ecstatic truth. He then said that I am after an emotional truth. Not sentimental, not nostalgic, but emotional. And that’s true. We have to go for whatever is true. And style is the authentic application of technique. And so when people say: “Would you do this just for the sake of it?” You say no. I’ve got my own work. He’s got his own. And it’s totally different. And yet we’re both after some ineffable transfer from one person to another. Which is called art.

Werner seems like a guy that would make fun of or heckle a movie while you were watching it. Does he do that?
He’s vociferous. And dramatic. And opinionated. And I’m not those things. He would not do the discourtesy of heckling a movie, but if he didn’t like something he might not hesitate to say it. I might be a bit more polite and circumspect.