Ken Burns was honored May 9 by the National Endowment for the Humanities for his documentary work on Black livelihoods.
Modern historians and social scientists often note that history, as written by the victors, tends to omit the very narratives that make the American story pliable, nuanced, and balanced. Few, however have championed a type of restorative history necessary to offer more clear and concise stories than filmmaker Ken Burns.
With a keen eye for hidden narratives and loss subjects, Burns has created a popular history filmmaking genre that returns the gaze to everyday Americans. For his work, the National Endowment for the Humanities honored Burns, May 9 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, with the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities, the 2016 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
NEH awarded grants to the Brooklyn-born Burns in support of 15 films over three decades— from his first film in 1981, “Brooklyn Bridge,” to the forthcoming “Vietnam,” which will premiere on PBS in the fall of 2017.
After experimenting with film and documentary techniques in high school, Burns applied for an NEH grant to support his first documentary film “Brooklyn Bridge,” which aired on PBS and was nominated for an Academy Award. Many historians claimed, the documentary was the first time, the stories of the men who built the bridge and the struggles between unions, developers, and ethnicities were evidenced. It also established a new standard among documentary filmmakers.
“Because we are celebrating our 50th anniversary, we were especially eager to select a person who represents the best qualities of NEH’s deep and diverse portfolio,” said William D. Adams, chairman of NEH. “His work combines deep humanities research with a rich feeling for American life and culture and unparalleled public reach and appeal. Ken is one of the great public intellectuals and historians of our time, and he is also a terrific speaker.”
Burns’ work includes some of the most prolific documentaries about American life, including the series “The Civil War,” which brought both enslaved Blacks and women to the foreground, and “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” detailing the anger raised in the age of White supremacy of having a Black man as a representation of ultimate masculinity.
For Burns, the honor, he said was immeasurable, having been impacted by the NEH over the course of his 36-year career. He said the current culture’s wars have “manufactured a false dialectic just to accentuate otherness” – a process the NEH and documentary filmmaking works against in order to retain a nuanced and sophisticated view of history.
“I have never been a particular lover of history – especially where documentaries were concerned because of these themes of African-Americans as tragically Black. It only took one Ken Burns film, ‘Unforgivable Blackness, the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,’ to change my outlook,” George Washington University student, Morris Artis told the AFRO.
Past Jefferson Lecturers include actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith (2015), biographer Walter Isaacson (2014), and filmmaker Martin Scorsese (2013). The lectureship, established in 1972, carries a $10,000 honorarium set by statute.