Super-documentarian Ken Burns of Jazz, Baseball, and The Civil War, can’t win when it comes to The War. The War, Burns’s latest opus for PBS, is a 14-hour documentary about World War II, told through people from four “distinctly American communities” – Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota. It’s also turned out to be Burns’s most controversial project in years – first, there was the shifted premiere date away from the battleground of early fall after critics protested they wouldn’t have time to review it. Then, there was the threat that FCC would come after the miniseries and PBS affiliates if they aired The War with the word “fuck” uncensored, which appears twice in the documentary.
Now Hispanic groups and Latino veterans of World War II are pissed at Burns – and they have every right to be. Turns out that when Burns spent the last six years working on The War, he “forgot” (my quotes, not his) to include the achievement of Latino veterans (or Native Americans, for that matter) in his documentary, which airs during September’s National Hispanic Month. So when said veterans and groups – Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey among them – protested, Burns and PBS decided to “fix” the problem by adding stories of Hispanic contributions to World War II at the end of each hour and during act breaks. Gee, I don’t see how paying that kind of lip service would piss people off, do you?
I’m a huge fan of Ken Burns. I think he’s an amazing storyteller, and I’ve been learning from his work and the work of his brother Ric, for over a decade. If Unforgivable Blackness, about Jack Johnson (the boxer, not the shitty guitar-playing surfer in need of one helluva beatdown) had been released theatrically, it would have won Burns a second Best Documentary Oscar. And you could make the argument that the awareness, ratings, and acclaim that PBS gets every time Burns releases one of his huge-ass documentaries (despite the fact that American Experience and Frontline are knocking it out of the park every week) brings in the pledge dollars, corporate sponsorship, and government funding it needs to stay afloat.
The problem with Burns is he wants to keep making these big, definitive statements on American history and culture. However, he wants to make those statements through a very narrow lens, rather than aiming to encapsulate all the notable elements of his subjects. Burns tends to focus on issues of race and racism, but he seems to think that race and racism only means racism towards African-Americans. This flack with The War is not the first time he’s run into trouble over the content of his documentaries, either: Keith Olbermann once famously compiled a list of factual inaccuracies in Baseball. Burns dismissed dozens of important and famous jazz artists in Jazz because they didn’t fit his classicist, elitist view of America’s most improvisational art form (and he ignored European contributions to jazz, like Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, too).
On The War, Burns has said that his film – despite being called The War, which sounds pretty definitive to me – was never meant to be a comprehensive treatment of the subject. He’s said that when he traveled to the four towns featured in the film, no Latinos responded to interview requests. Maybe because he chose to talk to the wrong people – Raquel Garza, of the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project has interviewed approximately 550 veterans, and I’m sure her group or groups like it could have put them in touch with more.
I can’t help but think, though, that Burns – and PBS with it – has crossed a line when it comes to The War. You can dismiss inaccuracies (although, as a documentary filmmaker, you shouldn’t) and write off great musicians in the name of storytelling. You can’t dismiss leaving out the contributions of hundreds of thousands of Americans, Latino or Native American, in what is perhaps the last justified war and defend that as “the right of a storyteller,” as PBS has. And the quick fix made by PBS is insulting – Latino veterans and Hispanic groups have every right to feel like they’re being “added on” to a documentary that took six years to make.
I’m not saying that PBS should pull The War, and I’m not saying Burns’s six years of work on what’s sure to be a pretty impressive documentary has all been for nothing. But I definitely think that – although promotion for The War has already begun – Burns can do more.
As a documentary filmmaker, he should realize that the chronicle of history is never complete, especially when a subject as detailed as World War II.
As someone who’s been working closely with PBS, he should know that PBS depends on government funding, and as shitty as it sounds, blowing off the Latino U.S. Senators who are concerned about this issue is the absolutely wrong thing to do for the public network right now.
As a student of American history, he should know that what makes our country great is the ability of everyone, no matter what the color of their skin, to stand up and do what’s right in times of great crisis.
As a patriot (because a love for this country and all its flaws is the one clear and unifying theme of his work), he should know that everyone deserves a voice.
You’ve taken six years, Ken Burns. Take one more. Go back to your "four towns" and your editing room and make this right.