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Jackie Robinson slides into base.
Jackie Robinson slides into base.
PBS/Courtesy of Getty Images

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“Objectivity doesn’t exist, except in God”

Documentarian Ken Burns on politics, racism, baseball, and his new film.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If PBS had a face, in this post-Sesame Street era, it just might be that of documentarian Ken Burns. Through thick and thin, the filmmaker's efforts, great and small, are perennial performers for the broadcaster, and many a member station has weathered yet another pledge drive by rebroadcasting his 1990 breakthrough film The Civil War.

Burns has settled into a nice groove of late, one where he alternates his gigantic, sweeping epics, like The Civil War or 1994's Baseball or 2014's The Roosevelts, with smaller, more personal films, often focusing on individuals or less epic moments within the grand tapestry of American history.

Such a film is Jackie Robinson, which he co-directed with his daughter and son-in-law Sarah Burns and David McMahon. As you might expect, Jackie Robinson tackles the life and times of the titular baseball player, but it's so much more than a story of a major civil rights breakthrough (though it is, of course, also that). It's also a deeply felt love story, about Robinson and his wife, Rachel, and their twin struggles against the racist society they lived in.

I met up with Ken Burns to talk about the film, about why America likes to play out its biggest issues through sports, and about whether documentaries have any obligation to be objective.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On baseball: "It's the greatest game that's ever been invented"

Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson at the plate.
PBS/Courtesy of the Baseball Hall of Fame

Todd VanDerWerff

Americans have a tendency to work through some of our biggest issues via sports. Why do you think that is?

Ken Burns

You hope in a democracy it's a meritocracy, but it's not that way. African Americans, because of the color of their skin and their history of having been unfree in a free land, have had to improvise a hell of a lot more than the rest of us.

When you get into sports, if the guy can hit … [Dodgers outfielder] Dixie Walker, who was avidly against Jackie coming up, then says he has to admit when the Dodgers win the pennant that Jackie's done more than any other to bring [the team] up in the race, which is an unintended pun. He just means the National League race. He also understands that [Robinson] is everything that [Dodgers general manager] Branch Rickey said he would be.

That tells you that transformation is possible. Here's a guy from Leeds, Alabama, who's going to have a hard time with it, and did have a hard time with it, but he worked his way through it.

Todd VanDerWerff

As a country, we've built this deep mythology around baseball, and you've returned to it in several films. What keeps drawing you back?

Ken Burns

I think it's less the mythology than a couple of complicated things.

I'd start off and say it's the greatest game that's ever been invented. Name any other sport in which the defense has the ball and there's no clock. In which not the ball or the puck score, but the man.

Having established my feeling that it's the best game ever invented, it does a couple of things. Because it's so old, it's accompanied most of our national narrative, and so it reflects us. It's a good mirror. If you want to do the history of immigration in the United States, here it is. It's in the baseball stats of the period. Is it a lot better than reading chapters four and five from this textbook? Yes, it is.

It also seems to be utterly modern. It seems to reflect exactly what's going on. When we take pills for everything, what are our ballplayers doing? They're taking pills for stuff and getting into trouble, just as we're getting into trouble. It seems utterly modern, that mirror. That sort of canary in the mine of who we are.

It also is this repository of our most carefully held truths. The myths of a pastoral, democratic people coming up and mowing the field and then playing baseball. When in fact it was born in crowded urban cities and clerks went, took the ferry across to Hoboken, New Jersey, to the Elysian Fields. Isn't that a good enough myth?

It becomes an important bellwether. It's very interesting that the first progress in civil rights after the Civil War takes place on the diamonds of our so-called national pastime. [Baseball's integration] is well before Brown v. Board of Education and integrating the military and bus counters and boycotts and all of those things.

On the sweep of history: "Politics is so small and superficial"

Ken Burns
Ken Burns.
PBS/Courtesy of Justin Altman

Todd VanDerWerff

As someone who makes documentaries about American history, race comes up in nearly every film you've made. How have you come to think about America's relationship to race over the course of making all those films?

Ken Burns

Our American narrative begins on July 4, 1776. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

I have to stop, because the guy who wrote that sentence owned more than 100 human beings and didn't see the contradiction or the hypocrisy [in that]. He set in motion, symbolically at that moment, an American narrative that was always going to be that. How can you tolerate that by four score and five years after that, 4 million Americans are owned by other Americans? It doesn't work.

Everybody knows that people are judged differently by the color of their skin. Still, the old guilts have not metamorphosed into charity but have often metastasized into anger. We see that in Dylann Roof in Charleston, who wants to start a race war by murdering nine churchgoing people on a Wednesday night after he sat and listened to Bible study.

I get a lot of shit. People write me death threats and hate mail. People say, "Why do you keep bringing this up? Now that Obama's elected, can you shut up about it?" I said, "You watch. It's going to get worse." Two majorities of the American public voted for him, but a minority of the minority were very disturbed by his election and have done everything they could to undermine it, so racism has actually increased in the country.

Todd VanDerWerff

Do you try to leave a certain gap between the period you're documenting and the present? Or would you like to make more contemporary films?

Ken Burns

We did The Central Park Five [in 2012], and that brought us more or less up to the present. In some of the baseball films, we were going more or less up to the present.

Many of the projects that we're doing now have a very contemporary stuff on the Bard Prison Initiative and teaching college to prisoners, and the East Lake neighborhood in Atlanta, which was transformed 20 years ago into an extraordinary neighborhood. I tell those stories, but generally speaking, I like 25, 30 years out.

More often than not, we get to 25 or 30 years out and we untether our narrative from a certain certainty and become more impressionistic in our presentation. We [Burns and PBS] have a big series on country music [coming in 2018]. We'll get up to Garth Brooks and big stadium tours and then just say, "Lots of stuff has happened since, but this is the province of you." We don't want to start defining what a pantheon is or what it really means unless you have the perspective that is gained by some time.

Todd VanDerWerff

There's a lot of discussion right now, especially around true crime documentaries like Making a Murderer, over whether objectivity for documentarians is even possible. I think people think you're very objective, but I also think they're missing how all of your films have a really subjective point of view.

Ken Burns

Oh, yeah. Objectivity doesn't exist, except in God, and she's not going to tell.

I think we can disabuse ourselves of the idea that documentaries are objective. They don't even have to be fair. We have a First Amendment. You can say what you feel. Michael Moore can do every film he wants to do and say whatever he wants, and some guy on the right can do the same thing. I've felt the journalistic urge to be fair, to leave my own political views away and to tell complicated stories.

I know full well that certain sympathies and inclinations, and why we include something and why we don't include something, of course reveal biases. They're not necessarily political. Politics is so small and superficial. It's just so binary — it's just good, bad, red state, blue state. That's all it is.

What compels our lives, our art our faith, our relationships? All of the things that we're actually interested in are not binary. They're bigger than that. We want our equations to be 1 and 1 equals 3.

The Vietnam film [arriving later in the year], somebody said to me, "This will be your most controversial film." I said, "Yes, but only among those who don't watch it."

We live in a culture where people feel absolutely happy to comment on a film they've never seen or a book they've never read. There will be people who will take one thing out of context or not even look at it and be sure that it's this way because they think they know who I am. This is not the case in the Vietnam film or any of the films we've done.

I think what's interesting about this [film] is the fairness with which we approach Jackie's Republicanism.

Todd VanDerWerff

Jackie Robinson, especially, embraces political narratives of its time that maybe don't fit how we think of the parties in our modern era. What have you been most surprised to learn about the history of America's political parties over your career?

Ken Burns

I think how incredibly contemporary they all seem. We've got candidates railing against immigration. That happened in the '20s. It's in [his 2011 miniseries] Prohibition. It happened with the Know-Nothings in the 1840s when they wanted to exclude the Irish. That was just a way of saying we don't want Catholics here. We don't want lesser people here, that's what it is. This is a familiar trope.

[The courtesy] you want to extend to the past is the dignity of how sophisticated they are. That they could sit around in 1840 and have a conversation as serious and as detailed as we're having now. We don't think that. When we see guys in a picture we think they say thee and thou and it's all very simplistic, and it's not. They lived lives as complicated as ours are.

On history's repetitions: "What I look for are those patterns, those themes that emerge and reemerge and guide us"

Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson and his family, including his wife, Rachel Robinson.
PBS/Courtesy of Rachel Robinson

Todd VanDerWerff

There's that old canard, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it —

Ken Burns

I hate that. It's George Santayana. It's a very beautiful statement. It's not true, and there's no cycle to history.

The Bible said it best, Ecclesiastes, "What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again." "There is nothing new under the sun," which means that human nature doesn't change. It superimposes itself over the seemingly random unfolding of chaotic events, and we can perceive themes and repetitions of some kind.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." He didn't say it, but I love that. That's what I look for, are those patterns, those themes that emerge and reemerge and guide us. If you know your past, you're much better armed to deal with the present and the future.

Todd VanDerWerff

We've talked a bit about immigration. We've talked about race. What are some other necessary themes for understanding America?

Ken Burns

I would say the nature of freedom itself. There is a great tension, and always has been, between individual freedom and the collective freedom that we all enjoy. Those are always at loggerheads. It's always been there.

We have this issue of leadership, which I think is a huge thing. What entails courage in leadership? What are those hallmarks?

Heroism is another thing. We live in a simplistic media culture that presumes our heroes need to be perfect and is constantly disappointed when they aren't. The Greeks who invented the notion of heroism knew that a hero had very obvious strengths but also very obvious and perhaps equal weaknesses. It's the negotiation between those strengths and weaknesses that defines heroism.

Now everybody has to be perfect, and nobody's perfect. You get caught up in that. Achilles had his heel and his hubris, as well as his great strength.

Todd VanDerWerff

Most of your films amount to detailed, compassionate portraits of great Americans. What did you take away from your time with Jackie Robinson?

Ken Burns

I think he is one of the most important people in American history. He's an extraordinary pioneer. He's hugely brave, very inspirational.

I think I was re-reminded that the mechanics of the universe — as hard as it is for us to say this four-letter word — is love. It's not just love of wife or love of husband, which are very clear in the film, but all of the things that he did. He gave up his life to serve his country. You don't die at 53 looking like you're 85 if you haven't been bearing an enormous burden.

Jackie Robinson debuts at 9 pm Eastern on Monday, April 11, and Tuesday, April 12, on PBS. You should check local listings to make sure your region's station is airing it.


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