In sharply-worded essay, Lee writes PBS has marketed Burns as "'America's storyteller,' as if there were only room for one"
For at least 30 years PBS has become synonymous with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, a relationship that has brought valuable programming to the public broadcaster and steady work to the director.
Producer-director Grace Lee says it's time for PBS to reexamine that partnership and to reckon with whether it has come at the expense of opportunities for filmmakers of color.
"The amount of broadcast hours, financial support (from viewers like who?), and marketing muscle devoted to one man’s lens on America has severed PBS from its very roots," Lee charged in an essay written for a Ford Foundation series of commentaries called Creative Futures. Lee urged the network to "Fund seasoned BIPOC filmmakers at the same level that PBS has supported Ken Burns for the past 40 years."
Every tentpole series from American Masters to Frontline to Independent Lens has been led by white decision-makers since inception.
Lee began her 556-word essay by writing pointedly, "Documentary series like The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, and The Vietnam War have led PBS to market him as 'America’s storyteller,' as if there were only room for one."
She suggested that tight embrace of Burns has led PBS to stray from its original mission.
"In 1967, amid widespread civil unrest, PBS was created by an Act of Congress 'to expand and develop a diversity of programming dependent on freedom, imagination and initiative on both local and national levels,'” Lee wrote. "Fifty-three years later, as we undergo another societal breakdown and racial reckoning, how much does PBS reflect the audiences it was intended to serve?"
Lee's critique is particularly eye-opening because, as she noted in her essay, "I largely owe my own documentary career to PBS."
"In 2020, I was a producer on Asian Americans, a groundbreaking series for which we had five hours to tell 150 years of history spanning from the Chinese who built the railroads to South Asians targeted after 9/11," Lee commented. "Compare this to 16 hours of Country Music, which also aired in 2020, or 13 hours of the Roosevelts—both by Ken Burns. His 2021 slate includes four hours each on Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Benjamin Franklin, and the American Buffalo. When bison merit 80% of the airtime afforded to Asian American history, it calls into question not only the leadership of public television but also who gets to tell these stories, and why."
In her piece, Lee asked what remedies are needed to address the issue raised in her commentary. She answered that PBS should begin by examining its hiring decisions.
"Ensure that public television board rooms, executives, local stations, and filmmakers reflect the diversity of America," Lee insisted. "Every tentpole series from American Masters to Frontline to Independent Lens has been led by white decision-makers since inception. What would these series look like with BIPOC at the helm?"
Lee also urged, "Re-assert that PBS is not beholden to one audience for its viewership and revenues. Limiting Black, indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American content to token one-offs and heritage months sustains the myth that our stories are something other than part of the American experience. It’s time for a new canon and new investment in audiences who can be a financial engine for PBS."
Nonfictionfilm.com has reached out to Ken Burns and to PBS for reaction to Lee's essay. We will update this space if we hear from either party.
Director of One Child Nation and Hooligan Sparrow named one of 21 recipients of prestigious fellowship
Director Nanfu Wang has earned numerous awards for her work as a documentary filmmaker, including making the Oscar shortlist twice. But her latest honor puts her in a particularly exclusive class.
Wang, 34, was named to the 2020 class of MacArthur Foundation fellows, known popularly as the "genius grant" for the exceptional level of brilliance of the honorees selected from across the sciences and humanities. Twenty one people were awarded grants this year, including Stanford University sociologist Forrest Stuart, cognitive neuroscientist Damien Fair, historian Natalia Molina and playwright Larissa FastHorse.
The grants, which come with a "no strings-attached" award of $625,000, recognize "exceptional creativity."
Wang, whose feature documentary credits include Hooligan Sparrow (2016), I Am Another You (2017) and One Child Nation (2019) was saluted by the MacArthur Foundation for "creating intimate character studies that examine the impact of authoritarian governance, corruption, and lack of accountability on the lives of individuals."
Every film, to me, is a journey of discovery.
"I make films that explore the theme of freedom, power, propaganda and state control over individual lives," Wang said in a video posted to the MacArthur Foundation website.
Hooligan Sparrow, shortlisted for the Oscars, centered on Chinese human rights activist Ye Haiyan, who faced a furious backlash from authorities for exposing a sexual abuse scandal at an elementary school in Hainan Province.
One Child Nation, shortlisted this year for the Oscars, took a similarly provocative stance towards Wang's native China. It investigated in shocking detail how China enforced its one child policy, limiting population growth through forced abortions, sterilizations and infanticide.
Wang reacted to her MacArthur Foundation award on Twitter, writing, "Honored to be selected as a fellow as a Chinese citizen. Many storytellers in China are geniuses but their stories didn’t even get passed the censorship and be told and heard. Hope we’ll see more real stories coming from China."
Wang now makes her home in Montclair, New Jersey. When I got in touch with her in August to write a piece for Deadline.com on One Child Nation, I asked her if she has been able to return to China given the unflattering spotlight her films have directed on the country.
"I have gone back to China since One Child Nation was released to visit my family," she told me. "It was a short trip but I didn't encounter any harassment from the authorities during the visit."
Chinese authorities have shown an eagerness to curtail access to her most recent documentary, which won the Emmy last month for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
"Some people in China managed to pirate [One Child Nation] and the link of the film was on the internet for a while before the Chinese censors took it down," Wang said. "The Chinese government tried to make sure the film couldn't reach the public. It was omitted and excluded from all Chinese media reports when they covered awards in the U.S., such as nominations for the PGA and DGA awards and the Oscars shortlist. Blogs and user generated reviews on the film were deleted as well."
Sundance award-winning film now streaming on Netflix
In her acclaimed 2016 film Cameraperson, director Kirsten Johnson pondered her long career as a documentary cinematographer, exploring the implications of mediating true stories through the apparatus of the camera. As part of it, she included poignant footage of her mother, who struggled with Alzheimer's disease for seven years before her death in 2007.
She was close to her mother, and is to her father too -- C. Richard "Dick" Johnson, an amiable man and psychiatrist by training who made an enormous difference in his daughter's life.
"He has treasured me for the [person] that I am and allowed me to be sort of as big as I wanted to be," Johnson tells me. "In some ways he saw me. I think so many of us struggle with not being seen or not being allowed."
It was devastating then when, as her father entered his mid-80s, he too began to show signs of dementia.
"Honestly, I was so mad to have had my mom already have it. I was sort of like, 'Are you kidding me?'" Johnson recalls. "I was sort of enraged at the idea of having to face it again."
What loving demands is that we face the fear of losing each other.
Face it, though, she has, in a way unique to Kirsten Johnson. Her new documentary, Dick Johnson Is Dead, now streaming on Netflix, is the product of her attempt to deal with her father's deteriorating memory and the prospect of his eventual demise.
Johnson's idea, what you might call her coping mechanism, was to enact ways in which she could lose her father -- staging his death for the camera in a series of faux accidents, from a fall down a flight of stairs to a fatal encounter with a cascading air conditioner. These invented incidents, conceived to be comedic and absurdist, would serve as a cinematic proxy for a reality almost too painful to accept.
"I loved Harold and Maude, I loved Groundhog Day. Suddenly that playfulness in movies gave me [the idea], like, 'Ohmygod, we could do this film,'" Johnson shares. "We'll just kill dad over and over again and he'll come back to life and we can do it until he really dies for real. And that's what I said to my dad and he thought that was hilarious and it was like, 'Okay, we're doing this. We're doing his funeral.'"
On its surface, the idea might sound morbid. Johnson essentially acknowledged that in a director's statement:
"When I started to make this film in 2017, I had a lot of gallows-humor hooks that I would throw at people and then watch their expressions as they stared back at me, half in disbelief," Johnson wrote. "I would say, 'It’s a film about never wanting my dad to die and figuring out as many ways to kill him off as possible as a form of pre-traumatic stress therapy.'”
The audience for the finished film hasn't shuddered in horror or taken offense. Quite the opposite, Johnson says.
"What's been wonderful about the response, people know this pain is here. It's just that we mostly don't talk about it," she observes. "Facing the pain and being defiant or being transgressive in response to it -- I think people are like, 'Right on! Do it!'"
...My incapacity to accept the possibility of my own father’s death was so great, I wished to make a film about his dying in order that he might live forever.
As is perhaps appropriate for the child of a psychiatrist, Johnson traces the origins of the film to a subconscious vision.
"I had this crazy dream where there was this casket and a man sat up and said -- and it wasn't my dad -- he said, 'I'm Dick Johnson and I'm not dead yet,'" the director remembers. "I probably did unconsciously understand that my dad -- that the dementia had begun. I wasn't consciously aware of it at that moment, but I think in the way that dreams and brains try to tell you things, now when I think about it, it was an unrecognizable man who was my father, which is sort of what the dementia would do. I think in some ways that dream was like, 'Wake up! Your dad is changing.'"
Making a film about someone with dementia raises questions about agency and consent, but the bond between Kirsten and her father makes it seem clear that at any stage of his life he would do anything for his daughter. What's more, he's an easygoing man with a ready smile.
"I'm pretty good at living in the here and now," he comments in the film. And indeed he takes endearing pleasure in simple things -- a slice of chocolate cake, a scoop of chocolate ice cream; taking a seat in his favorite chair, he says with a smile, "How sweet it is!"
Johnson experienced a nagging fear that she had waited too long to embark on the film.
"I had this terrible feeling that I was failing, that I started too late, that I wasn't gathering my father -- like the presence of him had already so transformed that it wasn't him," she tells me. "Then probably in November of last year we had a screening and it was coming together and I had sort of rebuilt him and I realized, 'We got him. It isn't all gone. I have evidence of who he was.' And the dementia was already enough ahead of us that I could see that we had done it."
Dick Johnson Is Dead is a New York Times Critic's Pick, described by reviewer Manohla Dargis as "pitched artfully between the celebratory and the elegiac." At the Sundance Film Festival last January, where the film premiered, it won a Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling. It's a marvelously inventive film, suffused with a kind of magical realism, and manages to be both humorous and profound.
"We had some fun doing it," Johnson says of making the documentary, "and we had some tears doing it."
Trailer Released for 'Totally Under Control,' Documentary on Trump's Failed Coronavirus Response, As President Battles COVID-19
Oscar winner Alex Gibney's film debuts on VOD October 13
President Trump has consistently downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19 since the early days of the pandemic.
"It's gonna be just fine," Trump declared about the coronavirus back in January, a moment captured in the trailer for Alex Gibney's new documentary Totally Under Control. At a later White House appearance, the president commented, "Whatever happens, we're totally prepared."
The statistics belie those comments: more than 200,000 COVID deaths in the United States and more than seven million people infected. Now the president of the United States is among those battling the disease. He was taken by helicopter to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland Friday, experiencing symptoms that are said to include a cough, congestion and fever. The president is expected to remain hospitalized for several days.
The diagnosis and condition of the president is a reality check for the White House that has repeatedly attempted to dismiss concerns about the severity of COVID-19, for instance, urging states to "re-open" even when their infection levels were rising. On Thursday night, in pre-recorded remarks delivered in a video played at the Al Smith Dinner in New York, the president assured the audience, "I just want to say that the end of the pandemic is in sight."
Totally Under Control will stand as the definitive account of the Trump administration's incompetence, corruption and denial in the face of this global pandemic.
Totally Under Control, co-directed by Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, was made in "total secrecy" over the last five months, according to the trailer, based on interviews with "countless scientists, medical professionals, and government officials on the inside" who detail an endless string of missteps, obfuscations and denials that led to catastrophe.
"The truth is that political leaders caused avoidable death and destruction," states one of those medical professionals, Dr. Tom Frieden, former direct of the CDC.
Totally Under Control will be released on VOD platforms on October 13, including iTunes, Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play/YouTube and for rent or purchase via neonrated.com. It will become available for viewing on Hulu on October 20.
Watch the trailer here:
Melissa Haizlip directed documentary about her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, pioneering host of "America's first 'Black Tonight Show'"
Mr. Soul!, the award-winning documentary about remarkable television host Ellis Haizlip and his pioneering show SOUL!, is connecting with moviegoers in the virtual space.
The film directed by Melissa Haizlip, Ellis' niece, remains available in more than 60 cinemas heading into its second month of virtual release [for a full list of theaters, click here]. Mr. Soul! documents the significance of Ellis Haizlip's unprecedented variety show, described as "America's first 'Black Tonight Show.'" It aired on public television in New York from 1968 to 1973, hosted by the diminutive and openly gay Haizlip. An extraordinary array of leading African-American cultural figures appeared on the program, including Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, Betty Shabazz (widow of Malcolm X), Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Cicely Tyson, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Odetta, and Bill Withers, among many others.
SOUL! was the first national show to provide expanded images of African Americans on television, shifting the gaze from inner-city poverty and violence to the vibrancy of the Black Arts Movement.
"It's been beautiful to see and hear from viewers around the nation who are both entertained and uplifted by our film, and inspired as they discover Mr. SOUL!," Melissa Haizlip said in a press release provided to Nonfictionfilm.com, "Sharing my uncle's story and the legacy of his groundbreaking show is super important right now... [I]t allows more people to discover Ellis Haizlip's life and the impact that SOUL! had on our country, both then and now, during this pivotal moment."
The voice of Ellis Haizlip in the film is provided by actor Blair Underwood, who also executive produced the documentary. Belafonte, poet Nikki Giovanni, and Dr. Alvin Poussaint, who co-hosted SOUL! in its earliest days, are among those interviewed for the film.
Mr. Soul!, co-produced by Doug Blush, has won numerous awards since its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, including Best Music Documentary at the IDA Awards in 2018, and Best Feature Documentary at the Woodstock Film Festival, Urbanworld Film Festival, Pan African Film Festival, Out on Film Atlanta, and the Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival. It also won the Audience Award at the AFI Docs Festival and was a finalist for the Inaugural Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize For Film.
"SOUL!, guided by the enigmatic producer and host Ellis Haizlip, offered an unfiltered, uncompromising celebration of Black literature, poetry, music, and politics—voices that had few other options for national exposure, and, as a result, found the program an improbable place to call home," the film's website states. "The series was among the first to provide expanded images of African Americans on television, shifting the gaze from inner-city poverty and violence to the vibrancy of the Black Arts Movement."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.