The acclaimed documentarian discusses Trump’s demagoguery, race in America, and more. A retrospective of his films is currently streaming at SundanceNow Doc Club.
The late historian Stephen Ambrose once remarked, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.” This quote, a polite stew of genuine reverence and thinly veiled critique of our dismal education system, is proudly displayed on the PBS website, on Burns’s own website, and in every other profile of the renowned documentarian. While Ambrose wasn’t exactly a paragon of sourcing himself, it remains high—and many would say, accurate—praise from the man George McGovern once said “reached more readers than any other historian in our national history.”
It’s also a convenient way to encapsulate Burns’s ridiculously prolific 35-year career, spanning from his Oscar-nominated 1981 documentary Brooklyn Bridge and his magnum opus The Civil War all the way to his recent PBS miniseries Jackie Robinson. The SundanceNow Doc Club, a streaming on-demand service dedicated to documentaries and indie films, is currently presenting a retrospective of Burns’s work that allows viewers to stream 11 of his documentary projects.
Burns has, throughout his career, harbored a unique fascination with race in America, and many of the films in the SundanceNow Doc Club collection explore just that, including: Thomas Jefferson, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, and The Central Park Five.
“I’ve been dealing with the question of race in every subject, whether it’s Thomas Jefferson and covering the pre and post-revolutionary period to Jack Johnson in the early 1900s to Jackie Robinson to whatever subject we’re reminded of almost daily these days, particularly in the demagoguery of one of our presidential candidates, that race is still that hot-button issue that we haven’t been able to deal with,” Burns tells The Daily Beast. “Part of the accountability question is that we’re still judging people not on the content of their character, but on the color of their skin—as Dr. King said.”
The Daily Beast spoke to Burns about his storied career, the aforementioned presidential candidate spreading “demagoguery,” and much more.
One of the films included in the retrospective is The Central Park Five, which holds a special place for me as a New Yorker. A lot of young people probably don’t know that Donald Trump took out a hysterical full-page ad at the time calling for the now-innocent kids to receive the death penalty, which inflamed public opinion.
He shamefully took out a full-page ad in all of the New York dailies asking for a restoration of the death penalty for two 14-year-old, two 15-year-old, and one 16-year-old innocent children. While New York State laws would not have permitted their execution, just the fact that there was a rush to judgment ought to be complete evidence of how temperamentally unsuited he is for the office he now seeks.
Do you feel Trump’s rancor was racially motivated? Even when the city recently settled with the kids for $41 million for their wrongful convictions, Trump penned an op-ed calling the settlement a “disgrace” and writing “these men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
Of course it was [racially motivated]. I found no outrage at the “preppie killer.” The problem was that the initial idea of the crime was that there were these “wilding” black youths—a wolf pack—that attacked this innocent blond woman, and that’s always been the primal fear of Americans as they tolerated slavery and then tolerated Jim Crow. You had newspapers in a progressive northern city sounding like a southern racist newspaper from the 1880s gleefully reporting on a lynching.
Hillary Clinton is somewhat guilty of this mindset as well, however. She did infamously refer to gangs of young black kids as “super-predators” in 1996.
What happens is I think things come into the language and get used by everybody, and it comes back. With anyone who’s been around for a long time, you can dig up stuff like that. I find Donald Trump more of a super-predator. This idea that he can attack and attack and attack whole groups of people, and that we live in a media culture where that’s permitted to be tolerated—it’s the spectacle and not the truth of it. An amoral internet permits a lie to travel around the world three times before the truth can get started, and we live in a place where lying is OK—where a lassitude develops where it doesn’t matter what the truth is—and that’s how it’s possible for someone like him to be advanced who is so clearly temperamentally unsuited and has no idea about governing.
This problem didn’t start with Trump, though. I feel there’s been this undercurrent of racism in this country for quite some time. Trump just lit the fuse.
All through my professional life I have dealt with race as a central subtheme of American life, and how could it not be? The author of our creed who said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” owned other human beings and didn’t see the contradiction or hypocrisy of it, and didn’t see fit to free any of them in his lifetime. It set in motion an American narrative that has constantly had to deal with the question of race. I’ve always gotten a lot of hate mail from people—“You nigger-loving this,” “You nigger-loving that”—and that’s to be expected, but I also had, even among friends and historians and critics, this impatience with my constantly going back to race. When Obama was elected they said, “Now will you shut up?” and I said, “Just you wait.”
Right. The election of Obama led to the rise of the Tea Party, which was in part racially motivated. And there are still a lot of foolish people in the country who think the election of Obama means we’re living in a “post-racial America.”
The majority of people in the United States of America have, quite correctly and to their credit, elected this man president. But it doesn’t mean that everybody is in this gigantic “Kumbaya” moment that my friends, colleagues, and critics presupposed. It in fact set a lot of people off, which is why the birther movement—which Trump sponsored after trying to execute the innocent children of the Central Park Five—is just a polite way of saying the N-word. It’s just another way to say it. Look, when you have a Republican Party where 54 percent believe that Obama’s not a Christian and he’s a Muslim- I read Christmas messages from distant relatives who talk about him trying to turn the United States Army into the Muslim Army. I mean… what is the Muslim Army?
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SOURCE: The Daily Beast – Marlow Stern