Ken Burns is a very skilled filmmaker, but he is a terrible adjudicator of history. Despite his constant claims that he doesn’t take a position, of course he does and it is inevitably one of a cultural conservatism combined with some level of nostalgia for the past. The Jazz and Baseball documentaries were full of this, with the former dismissing everything in the past 40 years and the latter prioritizing the voice of George Will. Commenters such as Will are common in Burns documentaries. Even when he does pay attention to African-American history–as he often does–he loves no one more than Stanley “Hip Hop is Destroying Black Culture” Crouch as a talking head.
Despite the popularity of Burns’ monumental The Civil War, from the moment of its release, historians have come after Burns for centering Shelby Foote, noted apologist for Nathan Bedford Forrest. As Keri Leigh Merritt notes, the fact is that in any case The Civil War is now massively dates and desperately needs replacing with another big documentary series that, oh I don’t know, includes people who aren’t white men in the production.
With the recent debut of Henry Louis Gates’s new multi-part documentary “Reconstruction” on PBS amidst great fanfare, I found myself reflecting upon why Americans desperately need an updated Civil War documentary as well. (You can, and should, stream the documentary for free on PBS.)
Watching “The Civil War” as a teenager several years after its initial release, I became enamored with the series—so much so that I spent my hard-earned money on the expensive companion book and the soundtrack for the haunting “Ashokan Farewell”—a song from the 1980s (not the Civil War era!) that played throughout the series. In many ways, the documentary helped spur my own interest in U.S. history.
Yet as I grew older reading broadly on both the war itself and the 19th-century South, enjoying scholars such as Bell Irvin Wiley, John Hope Franklin, and Victoria Bynum, I realized that I fell in love with the series—but not for its historical accuracy. Instead, it offered a kind of self-satisfaction for me as a white American, and, more importantly, as a white Southerner. I came to realize that by downplaying the importance—and horrors—of slavery, and instead concentrating on hard-fought battles, valiant, virile soldiers, and heart-wrenching tales of romantic love and loss, the documentary specifically targeted one audience: white people.
While there are several difficulties with “The Civil War,” the fact remains that the entire production was written, directed and produced by white men with little in the way of historical training and few connections to academic historians. While undoubtedly masters of the mediums in which they were trained, biographer Geoffrey Ward, producer Ric Burns, and Ken Burns himself surely had blind spots and lacked the diverse perspectives necessary to convey the sheer magnitude and long-lasting impact of the war.
Many professional historians immediately took issue with “The Civil War,” and their concerns were published in a 1997 volume edited by Robert Brent Toplin. Featuring essays by some of the most well-known scholars of the day, including Eric Foner and C. Vann Woodward, with responses by Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward, Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond did little to lessen the continuing impact – indeed, the cultural and intellectual legacy – of the film itself.
It’s worth noting that filmmakers not trained as historians, like Ava DuVernay (Thirteenth) or Marlon Riggs (Ethnic Notions, Color Adjustment), have been able to produce challenging and accurate documentaries. Indeed, through lenses like theirs, the Civil War narrative would have been much more nuanced and would have encompassed of a wider set of experiences and ideas. PBS’s own highly rated Civil Rights documentary, “Eyes on the Prize,” aired in 1987, just a few years prior to “The Civil War.” Although written and directed by a variety of people, “Eyes on the Prize” was – and still is – considered good, sound history, and is still being screened in history classes across the U.S. today.
The problem of having an all-white, all-male (and non-historian) production team was further compounded by Burns’ choice of interviewees. Eight-and-a-half minutes into the first episode, Shelby Foote, a Mississippi-born writer with an accent as thick and sweet as Tupelo honey, made his unforgettable debut. The descendant of wealthy, slaveholding planters who fought for the Confederacy, Foote, a writer and journalist with no historical background, made the first of many appearances in which he spoke with the authority of a historian, but with none of the scholarly understanding of the war. Yet Foote was so charming and stereotypically “southern” that the Burns brothers used his interviews as the dominant narrative throughout the entirety of the film.
At nine minutes into the first episode, the film’s only historian with a doctorate, Barbara Fields—now recognized as one of the world’s foremost scholars on race and racism—unequivocally stated that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. The bloodiest time in our nation’s history, she argued, was about “humanity, human dignity, human freedom.”
But Foote was given the final word in the scene. Instead of slavery, he claimed, the Civil War occurred because of our “failure to compromise.” Fields would receive approximately eight-and-a-half minutes of airtime throughout the nine episodes, while Foote, whose quotes could best be described as a Confederate apologia, would be featured for an astounding 45 minutes and 56 seconds.
In a 2011 article for Slate, historian James Lundberg also took the film to task, especially for its extraordinary and disproportionate focus on Foote. “For all its appeal, however,” he wrote, “‘The Civil War’ is a deeply misleading and reductive film that often loses historical reality in the mists of Burns’ sentimental vision and the romance of Foote’s anecdotes.”
It’s aged horribly and Burns has learned nothing from it. I don’t expect such a documentary to be produced so long as Burns is alive and active and since he is the rare PBS cash cow, they aren’t going to anger him or let anyone challenge him. But while The Civil War may be entertaining in a narrative sense, it’s poison in content.