My interview with Ken Burns did not go as planned.
For those who may not be familiar with the documentary filmmaker, Burns has taken it upon himself to tell the story of America, blemishes and all. From Baseball to Jazz to The Civil War, his films take a slow, measured approach to examining the milestones of American history and culture, pulling lessons from the past to show not only how far we’ve come, but also where we’re headed as a nation. With his latest film, Jackie Robinson, Burns takes a look at the Civil Rights Movement through the life of the man who crossed baseball’s color line and continued to fight discrimination, both on and off the field. For Burns, one cannot talk about America without an honest discussion of race.
“Race is at the core of the American story,” Burns said. “It is there at the center of our history and at the edges. It is integral to our understanding of the past — and as such our hope for the future.”
Along with fellow filmmaker Dr. Henry Louis Gates, whose new film America Since MLK: And Still I Rise chronicles the African-American experience over the past 50 years, Burns has planned a national tour to discuss race in America. Beginning their tour in Charleston, the two men premiered clips from their new films at the Gaillard Center, with proceeds from the event going to support the International African-American Museum. Prior to the evening’s discussion, Burns and Gates were joined by Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. to meet with members of the press to talk about race relations in Charleston and the significance of the city being home to a museum of African-American history.
After waiting for a scheduled sit-down with all three men, I am told that things are running behind, and plans have changed. I am brought into the Gaillard Center’s performance hall to meet Burns. It is hours before the evening’s event is scheduled to begin and final preparations are still underway. Sitting alone at the center of the empty hall is Burns, who is waiting to make a final sound and lighting check for the night’s screening. Following a brief introduction, I sit with Burns, just the two of us among the 1,800-seat auditorium, and we watch the opening scene of his newest film. It’s rare to have the opportunity to talk to such a highly regarded artist about his work, but to enjoy it alongside him is something few get to experience.
As the scene ends and the house lights are brought back up, Burns asks someone nearby if it will be OK to have our interview in the performance hall. He’s worried that the final sounds checks will interrupt the conversation, but we’re told not to worry. I ask Burns about what led him and Gates to choose Charleston as the first city on their tour.
“I think there were two parallel streams that converged here: One was the fact that I was in the process with some colleagues of finishing a film on Jackie Robinson, and we were planning a national tour. Then of course we were brought up short by what happened on June 17, and I reached out to Mayor Riley, and he to me, and we decided that this would be the ideal place to not only come and screen, but to have a conversation about race,” he says. “I think by adding my friend Skip Gates to the conversation permits us to at least introduce the idea that an initial symbolic change is important and wonderful, but we have to sustain the conversation about race. I hope given how raw things still are in Charleston, how deeply felt on the part of just about everybody the loss of these nine human beings were, that we have an opportunity to say, ‘Let’s not just talk about it. Let’s begin to understand and broaden the narrative and figure out what kind of journeys we can all take wherever we are to get better, to be better, and to figure out how to make sure these lives were not taken in vain.”
Burns speaks with incredible clarity, but also with passion. He understands what in our nation’s past has led us to today, and he wants to help improve our chances for a better future.
“Mayor Riley’s been talking about just expanding our notion of education, so that we include everybody’s stories, not segregating African-American history to February, our coldest and shortest month, but integrating it fully in every sense of that word into the narrative. When you have an opportunity to examine a figure who’s sort of wrapped in cliche, mythology, like Jackie Robinson, it’s much more complicated and much more interesting and much more heroic,” Burns says. “To understand that almost everything that happened to Jackie or he influenced in the arc of his life is happening today, it permits us an access to have a conversation about race around a table in which we can engage in a civil discourse. History permits that. It doesn’t have the kind of rough edges of the present.”
I ask Burns why he believes Charleston is the right place for the International African-American Museum that Mayor Riley has pushed for so strongly toward the end of his time in office. Later in the evening, Riley calls the museum part of Charleston’s duty since more than 40 percent of all enslaved Africans who were brought in chains to this country came through our ports, and for that reason, the city has a responsibility to understand the history of all its citizens. Burns agrees, but as he begins to explain why the museum is so important to Charleston, he’s cut off mid-sentence by the blaring dance music that begins playing over the house speakers. Someone rushes to silence to noise, and once order is restored, Burns regains his train of thought. He makes it about nine seconds before the loud thumping of the speakers drowns him out once again. Burns has had enough with the constant interruptions and walks out into the lobby. I follow after him, expecting the interview to be over at this point, but I find Burns waiting, ready to finish his thought because he knows what he has to say is important. It’s important to Charleston, and it’s important to him because Burns believes the stories of every American should be heard, whether their ancestors were native born or brought to our shores.
“This is the Ellis Island for African-Americans. They were brought to a free country unfree. There was no Statue of Liberty next door to Ellis Island welcoming them. There was just the hull of a ship and the horrific Middle Passage they might have survived and then into slavery. They helped create the wealth of enormous numbers of people in the United States,” he says. “You’ve got another narrative that you need to tell. It is possible to take Charleston, take this story that is rarely told, and tell it. We expand the narrative. We’re not offering a counter narrative. We’re not asking anyone to give up their narrative. We’re asking them to expand their narrative to include others, and they’ll find our similarities and out commonalities, and that’s the key to success.”