Documentarian Ken Burns has entered the ring for 12 rounds with the first black heavyweight champion of the world and emerged to tell the tale. The creator of the most highly rated series in American public-television history (The Civil War) is now gracing PBS screens with Unforgivable Blackness, his film on turn-of-the-century boxer Jack Johnson.
But it’s not pugilism on Burns’ mind. Instead, he’s used Johnson’s story as yet another window on America’s complex national DNA—the tension between the ideals and the actual day-to-day practice. “I realized after making films for many years that I was making the same film over and over,” Burns says. “[While] wildly different, each had this burning inner core asking … who are we Americans as a people?”
While Burns says the question is never fully answered, each project brings new insights. “I’m essentially a mechanic who’s lifting up the hood of the American experience and trying to figure out how it works.”
Paste recently spoke with Burns about this central question, and what light Johnson’s story sheds on it.
Has your focus zoomed in from well-known people and events to lesser-known figures like Johnson, who are nonetheless pivotal?
BURNS: It hasn’t been conscious, but you’re right. After taking these epic subjects and the biographies of well-known people like Mark Twain and Lewis and Clark, we’ve concentrated on less-known figures. We’re now doing a multi-part series on World War 2 but we’re figuring no famous people in it. It’s all about ordinary Americans. What I try to do is remind people that the real heroic actions of life, the really important people are often the people who live next door to you. Or maybe, actually—you.
Do you see history as objective, or is it malleable, as many in your field now seem to think?
B: I believe history is malleable, not because the facts are, but because we keep discovering new things. It’ll never change that the third day of the battle of Gettysburg took place July 3, 1863. And it’ll never change that the Confederates lost. What makes it malleable is how you arrange the facts. I’m not talking about gross manipulations, but things that betray your inner life, your wishes, your dreams. And that’s why you have to make a big distinction between the past—which is gone—and history, which is a conversation between the present and the past that reveals as much about where the asker is as it does the past it’s asking about. The things we pursue [from] the past define where we are now and where we want to go. Harry Truman said it best: ‘The only thing that’s really new is the history you don’t know.’
So what’s constantly changing is the conversation, while the record is more or less fixed?
B: The record itself is more or less fixed, except when we discover something new. We discover DNA evidence telling us Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemmings. We’ve gone through 200 years assuming he didn’t; that it was just a rumor. As we engage in history—that is, the questions we in the present ask of the past—we’re asking different questions.
You actually see that in the most recent film—what kind of blinders a culture can wear. I look at the America of Jack Johnson’s day, and it doesn’t seem like my country at all.
B: You hit the nail on the head. That becomes instructive. When you hear reputable newspapers spewing the kind of racial invective they did as just a matter of course, you begin realizing that this question of race, which may have certain contemporary echoes, is a deep issue in American history and can help you understand what’s going on. Why Detroit looks the way it does. Or why Kobe Bryant and O.J. reached this hyper-consciousness in the courses of their lives and tragedies.
Jack Johnson just doesn’t seem like a turn-of-the-century figure.
B: That’s absolutely right. He’s utterly modern. In fact, looking at the old photographs of the period, it feels like he’s almost Photoshopped in. Of all the historical characters I’ve gotten to know—he’s the one who’d be able to be transposed to the present without any dislocation. He’d look around and know exactly what’s going on. He reminds me of one of these hip, cool people. Like a hip-hop star, who’s a gangsta figure with his long coats and his entourage, his bling, fast cars and high living. He’d know exactly how to fit into today’s celebrity culture and that makes him very interesting, and timeless in a way.
Have you gotten any concerns from African Americans for pursuing this as a white filmmaker?
B: I think in the beginning of my professional life, there was a concern or hesitation in the African American community—like, ‘who is this?’ But I think in film after film I’ve proved my interest in telling an African American narrative, not just from a white perspective but from an American perspective. And I continually get letters and email and people stopping me and thanking me in person for telling their story. Wynton Marsalis said there’s no person but Ken who could’ve done Jazz and that was a high compliment. I have a distant relative, the poet Robert Burns, and he said, “Oh, winsome power, the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” Quite often we can see “the other” better than ourselves. I don’t mean I’m “other” than African Americans. We’re all the same—we’re all Americans. That’s what people haven’t done. When they deal with African American history they do it as a politically correct addendum. [But] I’ve fully integrated African American history into larger American history, because they are one and the same. When somebody asks you, “when is African American history day?” you say, “every day.”