Ken Burns’s ‘Roosevelts’ Fine But Flawed

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tags: Ken Burns, Roosevelts



Harvey J. Kaye is Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is the author of The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great. Follow him on Twitter: @HarveyJKaye

Ken Burns is America’s premier storyteller and historical “remembrancer.” His 26 documentary television series for PBS—including Brooklyn Bridge (1981), The Statue of Liberty (1985), The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), The West (1996),Lewis & Clark (1997), Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Dust Bowl (2012), and The Central Park Five (2013)—have more powerfully shaped our public memory and imagination than the collected works of any living historian. Indeed, the 61-year old filmmaker has himself become something of an iconic figure in American public history. 

So let me clear about it: I marvel at Ken Burns’ work. He and his team—most centrally, biographer and historian Geoffrey C. Ward—have been not just prolific, but also truly masterful in their labors. How the hell do they produce so many magnificent documentaries, documentaries composed of so much fabulous film footage, populated by fascinating characters and famous “talking-heads,” and finely woven together with clear and crisp emotive narration and classically American music? 

However, as much as I continue to marvel at it all, I now often find myself, at the end of hours of viewing time, feeling frustrated, ambivalent, both impressed and disappointed, no, actually angered, because of the history that Burns affords us. Or rather, the history that he does not afford us, the history we actually need, the history that would reveal how history is made. After nearly 40 years of concerted class war from above against the memory and legacy of the progressive Age of Roosevelt, we sorely need a history that would serve to remind us how, from the ’30s through the ’60s, Americans carried out an historic revolution that created the first ever Middle Class nation and help us remember that we might do the same.

I was deeply moved by Burns’s The War  It rendered an extraordinary oral history of the Greatest Generation’s struggle against fascism and Japanese imperialism—a struggle in which both Burns’s father and my own fought. As great as our fathers’ generation was, Burns did not fail to relate its and its greatest leader’s faults and failings—most emphatically the persistent racism that created a Jim Crow military, interned Japanese Americans, and fueled urban riots around the country. 

Nonetheless, while Burns went well beyond the Greatest-Generation tribunes Stephen Ambrose, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Brokaw in relating the story of World War II from the bottom up, he failed to tell us, just as they failed to tell us, what actually made that generation and its greatest leader truly great. Bluntly stated, Burns failed to tell us what that generation fought for. He not only made no mention of the labors and struggles of the New Deal that enabled Americans to beat the Great Depression, win the war, and create a powerful and prosperous postwar America.  He also made no mention of the Four Freedoms that President Franklin Roosevelt articulated in January 1941 as the nation’s war aims (“Freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear”) or the Economic Bill of Rights that FDR proposed in January 1944. These were social-democratic initiatives that, as polls showed, an overwhelming majority of Americans wanted to carry out at war’s end, but that were determinedly blocked by conservatives, southern reactionaries, and corporate bosses....





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