Ken Burns is even nicer than you suspected.
An award-winning documentarian and America’s secret weapon for celebrating facts and turning them into a ratings bonanza, Burns was indefatigable in his graciousness during a VIP meet-and-greet event followed by a discussion last Saturday night in Maplewood.
The event — Politics, Race and Culture: An Evening with Filmmaker Ken Burns in Discussion with historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad — was presented by the Maplewood Memorial Library Foundation and the South Orange Public Library Foundation as a fundraiser for major renovation and expansion projects planned by both local libraries.
Burns came to the aid of the libraries through an introduction by Maplewood resident Joe DePlasco, Managing Director of DKC, the public relations firm that represents Burns.
After a reception at the Maplewood Memorial Library, at which red and white wine was being served from the circulation desk and Burns spoke to almost everyone in the crowded room, Burns and Muhammad — a South Orange resident and professor of History, Race and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School — headed to a sold-out auditorium at Columbia High School.
The audience was greeted by CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron; South Orange Public Library Director Melissa Kopecky; and Sarah Lester, the head of the Maplewood Memorial Library. Lester described how she, like so many, have learned about American history from Burns’s documentaries.
Burns wasted no time in throwing the spotlight back on Lester and other librarians.
After showing a half-hour “mixed tape,” as Burns called it, of some of his more famous works — two clips from The Civil War (1990); one each from JAZZ (2001), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009) and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014); and, finally, an extended clip from his most recent work, The Vietnam War (2017) — Muhammad and Burns set off on their discussion by singing the praises of librarians and archivists.
“Books are the greatest mechanical invention ever,” said Burns. Additionally, he noted, “I worship librarians. I live for archivists.”
Muhammad started the interview with two questions submitted by South Orange-Maplewood School District students, then guided Burns through a discussion that ranged from the intensely personal to the global and political.
A question asking how Burns got into film brought on the personal revelations. Burns recalled that his mother died of cancer when he was 11, a loss that threw his childhood home into upheaval for most of the next decade. One night, Burns said, he and his father watched “Odd Man Out,” a 1947 film starring James Mason that concerned the troubles in Northern Ireland. It was the first time he saw his father cry, and, Burns said, he knew then how film could perform a kind of open-heart surgery.
At Hampshire College, Burns said he learned the drama and importance of history. As he matured and became successful, he said, “Everywhere I turned … there was the Civil War shouting to be done.”
Everything, he said, ultimately comes down to the matter of race in America. “It is ever-present. It is our original sin.”
Friends and relatives over the years have asked Burns to move on from race (race is at the center of such Burns’ films as Jackie Robinson, The Central Park Five, The Civil War and the upcoming Muhammad Ali, and simmers in the subtext of almost all his films), but he has refused. Burns recounted how when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, friends asked if he would then move away from race as a topic and he replied, “Just watch. Just watch what’s going to happen.”
Burns’s two upcoming works will again focus on race. One, about country music, will demonstrate the profound African-American influence on what is often seen as a white form of expression. Burns contends that everyone from A.P. Carter to Hank Williams to Bill Monroe had black influence in their progression.
Burns said that the Muhammad Ali documentary will cover the world’s most famous athlete “soup to nuts.”
As the discussion bent to a conclusion, Burns praised public television, saying he would not be able to do his films without it. Fortunately for all, Burns has a contract with PBS through 2030.
“I just feel I’ve got the best job in the country,” said Burns.
Donate to the Maplewood Memorial Library Foundation here.
Donate to the South Orange Public Library Foundation here.
The presentation and discussion were not recorded as the event was conceived as a fundraiser for the foundations through ticket sales.
Reporting contributed by Dan Barry, Elizabeth Aaron and Sarah Lester.
Photos by Franck Goldberg.
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