Tuned In

Ken Burns, the Interview: Episode 2–The Hispanic Controversy

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Does Ken Burns have anything to say about the attacks by Hispanics for leaving them out of the original version of The War? Does he ever!

Didn’t you have to take on faith that the four towns you picked would give you the whole scope of the war?

LN: Yes. We naively though that if you picked a big enough city, but not too big–if you picked New York, you could cover the entire universe, but it’d be too big. You couldn’t really do justice to New York, or LA or Chicago, even. But if you picked a city that was big enough–there’s 10,000 people from Waterbury [Conn.] who served in the military. But it turned out that actually we had to expand, because of that theoretical 10,000 there weren’t that many still living in Waterbury that we could find, there weren’t that many that were in combat, there weren’t that many that were compos mentis or wanted to talk–

KB: Or were still alive.

LN: Exactly. So we did take a leap of faith that over time we’d find the battle of the Bulge, D-Day, Guadalcanal, the capital-I important battles. For the most part, we pulled it off, with the exception of D-Day. We didn’t have anyone from our four towns who was at Omaha Beach. We had a paratrooper from Mobile, but not someone on Omaha Beach. And so we had to broaden [the interviewees] from our four towns.

This is probably a good point to ask about the Hispanic protests. You say up front in the film, and it would be hard to dispute this, that there’s no way you can tell every story or cover every location. Was there ever a point when you wanted to just say, Sorry, this is the film we made?

KB: Yes. Of course, of course. Our initial response was “Wait a second. This is coming from people who haven’t seen a frame of the film. We’ve advertised its arbitrariness. It’s impressionistic stuff.” Our feelings were hurt. We’d done a good job. And more to the point you can’t take this film out of the context of 30 years of our body of work, where, for instance, in The West, we didn’t tell the gunslingers’ stories. We instead told a Hispanic story in every single episode. And we were told “No Anglo can tell our story” at the time. We’ve done Hispanic stories in The Statue of Liberty, in Baseball, in Jazz, in [the upcoming] National Parks. Not out of any political correctness, but because it’s integral to the story.

Here, we set the precondition that we were not going to go out and seek, with the exception of Japanese Americans, any particular ethnic group. Hispanics were 1.4 percent of the population according to the 1940 census. They were not segregated like African Americans, with the exception of a Puerto Rican regiment. They were not interned, classified as enemy aliens and then segregated and used as cannon fodder like Japanese Americans, and the government didn’t count them. What we found, circling back, was that many of those veterans, particularly a couple we contacted in Sacramento, never knew, even though we advertised our presence, or if they knew, they were reticent. They felt, like many WWII veterans, that the heroes were my buddies that I left on the ground and I’m not going to go and advertise my heroism.

You begin to lock horns in our modern-day media dialectic, and then we realized that the obligation of art is to transcend it, to take the high road. to see better. We’d already initiated with PBS all these films that have significant Hispanic content well before this incident. We asked them to consider one of their own filmmakers making a separate film. No, it had to be us. We considered all sorts of things and we realized, we’re in the business of telling stories. We identified a couple of veterans. They wanted us do do one story, we did two. We put them in two different places and it didn’t compromise our vision. … And we also heard 20-plus years ago working on our series on The West about Joe Medicine Crow, who was a Crow Indian chief who is a Native American story that we tell at the end of the 5th episode.


I was talking to Jeff Ward, our writer, today, and her said that this whole thing in retrospect proves how critical it is to know history. Every 30 years in the history of our country an immigrant group–first it was the Irish, then the Germans–became the villain. I mean, you’ve got Pat Buchanan saying, They’re propagating faster than us and there will be more of them soon. And so you have an already defensive posture on the part of Hispanics. It’s not about this film. In fact, I am an ally. We are an ally of their sympathies, and I spent 30 years telling stories that haven’t been told. … In the end–why not tell another story? And so we did it, and it’s done, and our original vision hasn’t been compromised. And we’ve made some people whole and there are other people who will never be satisfied, and identity politics goes on. And in 30 years we’ll be talking about the new immigrant group from Mars that’s not getting their due.