Mention national parks, civil war battlefields, or even World War II and odds are one documentary film-maker’s name will instantly pop into your head: Ken Burns. In 1990 Ken Burn’s “The Civil War” revolutionized the way we think about documentaries-and American history in general. Twenty years later, “The Civil War” remains one of the highest rated and most popular series on PBS. But “The Civil War” was not the first project of its kind created by Ken Burns (see http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=burnsken for detailed filmography and more about Ken Burns’ career).
Few remember or are aware that years before “The Civil War” Ken Burns made other, just as ground-breaking documentaries. In the 1980s, Burns released several documentaries ranging in length from one hour to four hours including: “The Brooklyn Bridge” in 1981, “The Shakers” and “The Statue of Liberty” in 1985, and “Congress” in 1988. These precursors to “The Civil War” are often broadcast on local PBS stations as “Ken Burns America” or sometimes as part of “The American Experience” depending on your individual PBS station. All four are worth a (nother) look.
“The Brooklyn Bridge” was one of Ken Burns’ first projects. Nominated for an academy award, the two part series tells the barely known story of the genesis for, construction of, and legacy of the Brooklyn Bridge, an engineering masterpiece whose construction was fraught with danger for the men who built it. Sweeping and dramatic, this film is a must-see for anyone who lives in or loves New York City.
“The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God” tells another barely known American story. For over one hundred years, the Shakers were America’s greatest utopian experiment. They were the first conscientious objectors-gaining exemptions from the draft from Abraham Lincoln. They practiced gender equality between women and men with each community lead by two women and two men. They were inventors of everything from packaged seeds to clothespins. They were abolitionists who believed in and practiced racial equality. And, unlike any Christian sect I know of, they were founded by a woman. If you have not discovered “The Shakers” yet, you are missing out!
“The Statue of Liberty” tells the story of one of America’s most famous symbols. But bringing it from concept to reality was an engineering challenge rarely encountered in a monument. From concept to financing to construction to legacy, it’s time to truly meet Lady Liberty!
In today’s world, Congress is almost a joke to most Americans. But in Ken Burns’ “Congress” we discover that there is more to this body than their mistakes. Tracing the body back from its beginnings, “Congress” reminds us of the little remembered leaders who tackled tough issues like slavery, Native American relations, and presidential agendas. Using film clips from motion pictures, live video, and both audio and visual archival sources (including recordings of Nebraska Congresswoman Virginia Dodd Smith) and even interviews with journalists and members of Congress, we meet the federal legislature as we have never encountered it before. Before you make your next joke about Congress, watch Ken Burns’ “Congress”
All of these documentaries teach us about parts of our history and our culture we probably never got the chance to discover on our own. True to Ken Burns’ work as a whole, they enlighten us, inform us, and provoke us to re-examine our own ideas about what America is, where we’ve been, and who we wish to become.
I am a fan of Ken Burns and a supporter of Public Television. I hope you are as well.
More reading: http://womenincongress.house.gov/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=231, http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=burnsken, http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/timeline/, http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/