Ken Burns talks about new Jackie Robinson documentary

ken-burnsOscar-nominated director Ken Burns is releasing a new documentary series, this time about famed baseball player Jackie Robinson, which airs on PBS in two parts this Monday, April 11 and Tuesday, April 12, 2016.

Ken received his first Academy Award nomination in 1982 after his first documentary feature, Brooklyn Bridge, was released. He was nominated again in 1986 for his documentary feature The Statue of Liberty.

Since then, his films have covered a vast array of topics. He has won a total of five Primetime Emmy Awards for: The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004) and The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009).

We had the chance to talk to Ken about his new documentary series, titled simply: Jackie Robinson.

I recently watched your documentary The Roosevelts on PBS and loved it, and I really enjoyed this one too. I’ve seen the movie 42 but really didn’t know much else about Jackie Robinson.
We had done Jackie so extensively in our 1994 Baseball film, including his birth and his early life as well as the baseball years that 42 covered, but we knew he deserved a standalone treatment. My daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon and I, after we finished a film called The Central Park Five, about the five black and Hispanic children who were falsely accused in the Central Park jogger rape back in 1989, thought Jackie was perfect because he deserves to not just be a mythological figure in children’s books and statues. He deserves to have the barnacles of sentimentality scraped off and you begin to see a much more full and dynamic person. Much more complicated, but in no way diminished by that complication and in fact, I believe, ennobled by it. And since we are finally as a country, willing to admit that we are not post-racial, but in fact, carrying the same old demons as before, the arc of Jackie’s story is so instructive to us because as we grapple with Confederate flags, discrimination of all sorts, integrated swimming pools, all of those sorts of things, Jackie’s been through it.

How many years do you spend on a documentary series from start to finish?
It depends, you know, I’m finishing up one that will be broadcast in September of 2017, that, by the time it airs, I’ll have worked on it for 10 years. The same is true of our National Parks documentary, and then Jackie took several years to do, four or five, maybe.

I really enjoyed the archival footage in Jackie Robinson – how difficult is it to find and obtain that kind of footage?
So hard. So hard! You’re great, because you know when folks ask me about the work we do, it’s mainly the bigger picture stuff. Our job is really not glamorous. We are looking for footage, we are looking for photographs; we find out the photograph we have we can’t get the rights to; or we find a photograph but the resolution isn’t good; we find a photograph but it’s too expensive, what are we going to do…. Oh, here’s somebody who has stuff and they’re going to give it to us, just because they’re happy we’re going to use it. At the same time, we’re writing and when we get to the editing room, we just figure how to put it all together.

It sounds like a fascinating process.
It’s really fascinating and it’s humbling, too. I’ve lived in rural New Hampshire since 1979, which I fled to when I was working on my first film The Brooklyn Bridge, because I thought, “Wow, I’m going to be a filmmaker in American history, strike one; documentaries, strike two; for PBS, strike three. I’ve got to go someplace and live for nothing.” Guess what, I still live up there and we still make all the films up there. We’ve adapted to technology but have not allowed technology to adapt us. We work with the finest historians and don’t let it go until we feel it’s done. And if it goes a different way, if there’s an inconvenient truth in it, we just suck it up and go, “Okay. This is more complicated than we thought.” And adding more complication is better than just completely regurgitating the same old one or two dimensional mythology. It doesn’t serve Jackie Robinson in this case and it doesn’t serve us. I think he’s much more interesting as a dimensional character with a real marriage, not a fairy tale marriage. As you saw, Rachel sends the engagement ring back and then later on, in part two, she tells him she’s going to go out and work. He doesn’t like it, too bad, you know? (laughs)

Rachel was great, she’s such an interesting, strong woman.
She’s fabulous! Without her we wouldn’t have made this film. She’s the one who would call me up and make suggestions and of course, she’s the star of the film, besides Jackie. She’s the one who makes him come alive. It’s tough for her, too. When she saw the film, she was devastated because she had to relive the painful stuff as well as the glorious stuff. The film has all of that and my job, if I do it right, is to wake the dead. We try to make people come alive, but then inevitably, because it’s history, you have to kill them and as you saw, her son and her husband, within the last ten minutes of the film disappear. I mean, that’s got to be hard for her. She’s 93 years old; she has all of her marbles – she has some of mine (laughs) and I want them back. She is a formidable and spectacular human being. I’ve known her for a quarter of a century and she is tough and she knows what she wants.

She was incredible in the series and it’s clear how important she was to Jackie.
You saw the scene with President Obama and the First Lady. Here you have two couples, hurtling through different times and spaces, facing much of the same adversity. The President said, “You know, it’s nice to go home and know you have someone who’s got your back and loves you.” And then Michelle says, “He’s got to have been pretty smart to have picked someone like Rachel,” and then they look at each other and they’re no longer the most powerful couple on Earth, they’re just a regular married couple. Here’s somebody who can speak to this, what it’s like to be the first person through the door. Jackie in 1947 and President Obama in 2009.

I was amazed to see them in the documentary – how much red tape do you have to go through to have the President and his wife take part?
A lot. But it’s not different than scheduling a recording session with some of the voices that we have in our film. Jamie Foxx is the only voice that we have in the film. We didn’t want him to imitate Jackie’s voice, we just wanted him to record Jackie at signal moments from the very beginning to the very end of the film. That took a lot of time and effort, but you just do it and we’re in it for the long haul. Our film is made infinitely better by the presence of the President and the First Lady as well as Jamie Foxx.

What’s your next project?
I’ve got several. The next one of mine to be broadcast is called Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, about an American minister and his wife who, on the eve of World War II went to Prague and got Jewish refugees and others out — a very different kind of film for me. We have a really big series on the history of the Vietnam War that will be the next to air after that. And then we’re working on a big mammoth history of country music. We’re shooting and writing a documentary on the life of Ernest Hemingway, and those are just the ones that are produced and directed by me. I should add, the Jackie Robinson film is produced and directed by me and Sarah Burns and David McMahon.

You’ve done documentaries on not just people, but landmarks and events – what is your favorite topic to cover?
Just a good story. It has to be American history, that’s the first thing, but all of those subjects happen to be really great stories. Whether it’s the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Statue of Liberty, or the story of baseball or the Civil War or Jazz, WWII, Prohibition, the Dust Bowl, the Roosevelts, all of those help me practice to be a good storyteller. I’m an amateur historian but I’m a filmmaker and I choose American history the way a painter might be working solely in oils and only doing still life. American history leaves me with unbelievable options of topics and approaches and difficulties. Every production has a million problems and every series is 10 million problems. Literally. I’m not exaggerating. But that’s only if you see problems as pejorative, it seems daunting. If you see them as the inevitable and lawful frictions that come up in the essential question, “How do I tell this story?” then you spend years and years daily figuring out how you tell those stories.

Looking back, is there one documentary that you’ve been the most proud of?
No, I feel very very blessed. You know, these are my kids. I love my little film that I made in the early 1980s on the Shakers as much as I love The Civil War, even though The Civil War has been seen by tens of millions more people. They all have equal value. I’ve met people who think each one of my films is my very best. A lot of people think it’s The Civil War, a lot of people say it’s The Roosevelts, I’ve heard a few reporters saying Jackie Robinson’s the best, and I just say thank you. But I also know people who think the tiny film we made called Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, about the dark early days of radio, or that Shaker film (The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God) is my best. My editor, who’s just retiring now, who started working with me in 1982, he thinks my Shaker film, which he didn’t work on – I hired him right after the Shaker film – is my best.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your film Jackie Robinson?
We’re very excited to share it. I think it shows Jackie as a complicated person, a person who’s driven and combative and angry and impatient and having to turn the other cheek, which makes his accomplishments even more impressive and phenomenal. History is about trying to tell a complicated story and represent lots of varying viewpoints and perspectives. Even for those who know and are familiar with his story will find this revelatory and those who don’t know anything, I think will see that here is somebody who can offer us a guide through our own very tempestuous time with regards to race. That everything that Jackie went through is happening again today and it may be possible to understand it a little better through Jackie’s eyes.

Thank you so much for talking to us today – I look forward to seeing your future documentaries and I’m going to catch up on the ones I missed!
There are lots of them, that will keep you busy! I hope you enjoy them.

Jackie Robinson airs April 11-12 from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. ET on PBS.

Share this article:

Comments & Discussion

  1. There are no comments yet, why not be the first?

Join The Conversation:

Trending Articles

Current Poll

  • Which Canadian actress is your favorite?

    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...

You Might Also Like


Close Menu