Posted on July 26, 2004

Ken Burns, Race Provocateur? Who Knew?

Ken Parish Perkins, Star-Telegram (TX), July 18, 2004

Spike Lee once wondered whether black stories were better told by black people — those who have lived the black experience and are equipped with a certain sensibility, empathy and cultural understanding.

Makes sense.

I wonder, then, what Lee, the director of landmark films about race such as Do the Right Thing and Bamboozled, thinks of the fact that television’s most prolific chronicler of race in America is a white guy living in rural New Hampshire.

Ken Burns has never set out to film solely the black experience on subjects like, say, slavery, the death of Emmitt Till, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the great migration and the creation of inner-city urban poverty. But he’s had something to say about all of it in his acclaimed documentaries for PBS such as Thomas Jefferson, Baseball, The West and Jazz. In The Civil War in particular, Burns showed that, contrary to popular belief, black folks weren’t all that thrilled to be shackled. They were active, self-sacrificing soldiers in an intensely personal drama of liberation.

Burns’ latest project, slated to air in January, also will be pointedly built around race. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson will explore perhaps the most controversial boxer ever, the first black heavyweight champion whose boldness during the early 1900s dwarfs Muhammad Ali’s political fights over religion and black empowerment.

Burns resides in a place where African-Americans are pretty scarce, so plane hopping is where he gets most of his feedback from blacks, some of whom appear shocked by his thoroughness and sensitivity in tackling subjects specific to them.

But Burns insists that his interest in race is so deep in his consciousness that it’s hard for him to think of it as an intellectual pursuit he took on in adulthood. He recalls being 8 or 9, his mother dying of cancer, and watching on television attack dogs and fire hoses mowing down black people in Selma, Ala.

“And I remember sort of translating the anxiety about the cancer that was killing my family to the cancer that was killing the country,” Burns says. “It’s been very much a part of my emotional makeup.”

Burns feels like he’s paid his dues, studying the subjects outside his intellectual comfort range until his mind turns to mush, or at least until he’s certain “I know what I’m talking about.”

These days Burns probably gets more heat from whites wondering if he over-compensates, as though he’s suffering from some kind of white man’s guilt. Washington University professor and Burns consultant Gerald Early, who is black, says it isn’t white man’s guilt as much as “a man with an open mind. On a certain level, any human experience can be examined as long as your mind is open to it. That’s the discipline of a historian.”

Burns was heavily criticized by whites who felt he largely left white jazz artists out of the 19-hour, 10-part Jazz. He gave too much credit, they said, to black performers and arrangers for the creation and sustaining power of the music.

“I’m still unapologetic about who we left out,” Burns says. “If you think of who are the 10 greatest painters of all time, I guarantee most people would not have one African-American on that list. Now you’re not saying they can’t paint. You’re saying that Rembrandt and Monet and van Gogh happen to be better painters. Well, in Jazz, I got into so much trouble from people saying, ‘Where’s your white guys?’ Well, in the pantheon of 20 jazz artists, they’re all black.”

I also wonder what they’ll say about Burns’ upcoming Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. In many ways Johnson, who was born in Galveston, was the embodiment of the black struggle to be truly free at a time when black people were relegated to separate and vastly unequal lives. He refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, publicly flaunting relationships with white women when black men were being hung for simply looking at them.

Burns will deal with it all, and then deal with its aftermath later.

“Jack Johnson is as deep as we’ve gotten [on race]” Burns says. “I’m proud. I don’t think we’ve really pierced it the way we have with Jack.”