A photograph of Ken Burns at an event.

A Look at Some of the Documentaries Made by Filmmaker Ken Burns

Ken Burns photographed at a PBS documentary premiere.
Ken Burns at a PBS documentary premiere. Source: The Hollywood Reporter.

On September 19, 2021, a new Ken Burns documentary aired on PBS. This documentary examines the life of boxer Muhammad Ali, one of the most important figures of the 20th century. The documentary is a four-part series that covers Ali’s early years, his rise to fame, and his later battle with Parkinsons disease. Upon airing, the docuseries garnered rave reviews from various media outlets. Journalists praised Burns’ approach to documenting Ali’s life. According to Melanie Mcfarland of Salon, Burns succeeds in creating a piece that is neither sentimental nor celebratory. Rather, it is a deep examination of a celebrated man who had his share of controversy. Mcfarland also praised the originality of the docuseries.

Muhammad Ali includes several staples of a Burns documentary. First, Burns uses several hours of archival footage to tell his story, along with countless photographs and period music. Second, a noted actor provides narration; in this case it is actor Keith David. Third, Burns interviews people who have intimate knowledge of the subject. These people include historians, biographers, and friends and family of the person.

This new documentary is another entry into Burns’ impressive resume. For approximately 40 years, Ken Burns has created exceptional documentaries that have left audiences riveted. Let’s take a look at five of his best docuseries.

The Civil War: Originally Aired 1990

The poster for The Civil War. A cannon is photographed against the backdrop of a sunset.
The Civil War was released to universal acclaim in 1990. Source: Nonesuch Records

In 1990, The Civil War aired on PBS for five consecutive nights, and it became an instant hit. The documentary attracted millions of viewers; viewership averaged around 14 million people, with the highest figure being 39 million people. These large figures made it the most watched PBS program at the time. Burns’ documentary also received critical acclaim, winning over 40 major film and television awards. The Civil War has since been named one of the greatest documentaries of all time. But what made it so special?

Pioneering techniques

With this documentary, Burns introduced many new film techniques. One such example is the Ken Bruns Effect. Essentially, this technique is a panning and zooming effect with still imagery. Instead of showing a static, still image, Burns will zoom in on a specific subject in the photo, and then pan left or right to show the other subjects of interest. These subjects can be people, vehicles, and other objects. For example, in a photograph of a football team, the camera will zoom into one of the players, and then pan to reveal the rest of the team. While this is happening, the narrator discusses the team and any specific players.

Burns utilized extensively in The Civil War. Since there is a lack of archival footage of the war, the Ken Burns Effect was used to give action to the documentary. Otherwise, the material would be quite boring. In the coming years, Burns and several other filmmakers would use this effect in their documentaries.

Subject Matter

Another reason for the documentary’s success was its subject matter. The documentary covers the American Civil War, one of the most divisive wars in the country’s history. Even today, the roots of the war still linger in the U.S. It is also one of the deadliest wars in U.S. history: around 750,000 soldiers from both sides died, along with an unknown number of civilian dead. Therefore, it is understandable that a documentary about the U.S. Civil War would strike an emotional chord with Americans across the country.

Burns and his team also did extensive research on the war. This truly comes across as you watch the documentary. The causes of the war, the battles of the war, and the outcome and ramifications of the war are all explored in great detail. The documentary encompasses all aspects of the U.S. Civil War, and this is another reason it was successful.

Other Elements

To get the audience to connect with the material, Burns used narration and interviews with historians and other figures. The main narration was provided by David McCullogh, while several prominent actors read contemporary quotes, letters, and diary entries from historical figures ranging from Abraham Lincoln to ordinary soldiers. The reading of these contemporary quotes adds a powerful emotional element to the documentary. Viewers get an insight to the feelings of the war’s participants. Arguably, these narrations are what made The Civil War so succesfull with audiences and critics. It allowed them to personally connect with the story Burns was telling.

Retrospective Views

Shelby Foote being interviewed in The Civil War. He is sitting in front of a bookshelve.
Journalist and pseudo-historian Shelby Foote made several controversial statements in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Source: Time Magazine

While The Civil War is still viewed as a classic, there have been some criticisms towards it. The major critique is that the documentary conveys the Lost Cause of the Confederacy myth. This myth states that the Confederate states fought a heroic and just war. Their reasons for fighting were not based on wanting to keep slavery. This is most evident in interview segments with pseudo-historian Shelby Foote. Descendants of slaveholders, Foote is given substantial screentime. He also makes some controversial statements. For example, he expressed admiration for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan.

Baseball: Originally Aired 1994

The poster for Ken Burns' Baseball. The player Babe Ruth is featured on the poster
Baseball tracked the evolution of the sport. Source: PBS

Ken Burns’ Baseball series followed after the immense success of the Civil War. This series was equally popular with fans and critics, but many criticized the documentary’s length and extreme detail. With a runtime of 18.5 hours, Baseball is one of Burns’ longest documentaries.

Baseball covers the history of the American sport: from it’s inception in the 1880s to it’s then current form in 1992. The series consists of nine episodes, each named an inning, which refers top the division of a baseball game. For example, the first episode is titled “1st Inning: Our Game”. The documentary discusses notable baseball games, famous players, and innovations to the game, like new brands of baseball bats. In addition to charting baseball’s evolution, Burns explores major events taking place in the U.S. in relation to baseball’s history.

But Burns’ documentary is not just a summary of the sport. Burns uses baseball as a framework to discuss larger and more complex issues. Some themes include race, business, and labor relations, as well as the relationship between baseball and American culture.

When it initially aired, Baseball garnered an audience of 45 million people. This made the documentary the most watched program in public television history. In 2010, a two-part encore titled “10th Inning” aired. This encore covered baseball’s history from the 1990s until the late 2000s. Some of the topics covered were the labor stoppages of the 1994-1995 baseball season, and the recent steroid scandal.

The War: Originally Aired 2007

The poster for The War. It features a U.S. soldier intensely staring into the camera.
Ken Burns explored World War II through the perspective of four American towns in The War. Source: PBS Learning Media

Countless documentaries have been made on World War II. There are too many to mention. With such a destructive and large-scale war, it is difficult for any documentary to sufficiently cover World War II. Ken Burns decided to take a more focused approach for his documentary on the war. Instead of offering a general overview of the conflict, Burns instead focused on America’s perspective. Specifically, Burns focused on four American towns: Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Waterbury, Connecticut. Residents of these towns were interviewed, giving their perspective on World War II as well as recounting their experiences in the conflict.

While The War was generally praised by audiences and critics, the documentary faced several criticisms. While many liked Burns’ use of small American towns to cover the war, some criticised this approach as being too domestic. In other words, Burns depicted the war as only an American concern. In doing this, Burns failed to cover the more horrific aspects of World War II, such as Stalingrad and the Nazi concentration camps.

Abscence of Minorities

Another point of controversy was the lack of minority communities in the series. While Burns does explore African-American participation in the war, he largely neglects other minority communities, such as Hispanic and Native American contributions. Burns also fails to cover women serving in uniform.

These omissions sparked outrage from the respective communities. There were calls to include additional footage to address the omissions. At first, Burns refused to re-edit the documentary. PBS stood by the director, claiming it was artistic freedom to not include the footage. However, Burns relented and stated he would include 28 minutes of additional footage. The additional footage would air after the full documentary was broadcast.

Despite these criticisms and controversies, The War was another celebrated documentary Ken Burns added to his filmography.

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson: Originally Aired 2005

Jack Johnson posing in a fight stance in a black and white photo.
Ken Burns profiled revolutionary boxer Jack Johnson in Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Source: Pinterest

Based on the book by Geoffrey C. Ward, Burns’ documentary charts the rise and fall of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion of the world. Johnson was a trailblazing figure in American history. He boxed during the early 1900s, a time where racism was rampant. During this era, Johnson did many things that upset white America. Besides defeating a white boxer to become heavyweight champion, Johnson broke several racial barriers during the Jim Crow segregated era. He flaunted his wealth by buying expensive fur coats and jewelry. Johnson also had relationships with white women, which at the time was taboo. He also operated a desegregated night club.

With all these galling acts, it may come as no surprise that white America tried to bring Johnson down. In 1912, Johnson was arrested on the charge that his relationship with his wife Lucille violated the Mann Act (transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes). An all-white jury found Johnson guilty, and he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. However, Johnson skipped bail and left the country, first going to Canada and then to France.

Burns features all of these events in Unforgivable Blackness. To heighten the drama, Burns uses several of his familiar tropes, such as using a narrator and having prominent actors voice historical figures. In this instance, actor Keith David provides narration, while Samuel L. Jackson voices Jack Johnson.

With such a revolutionary and polarizing figure in Jack Johnson, Burns’ documentary is extremely detailed. Burns certainly does Johnson justice as an important figure in U.S. History.

The Vietnam War: Originally Aired 2017

The poster for The Vietnam War. A U.S. soldier and a Vietnamese farmer are mirrored against each other.
Ken Burns gave an encompassing view of the Vietnam War in the 2017 documentary The Vietnam War. Source: PBS LearningMedia

In 2017, Burns decided to tackle another polarizing conflict in America’s history, the Vietnam War. From 1955 until 1975, Vietnam was embroiled in a bloody civil war. The chief combatants were the U.S. backed South Vietnamese and the Soviet Union supported North Vietnamese. Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, the North wanted to unite Vietnam under a communist doctrine. The U.S. wanted to prevent this from happening, fearing that the rest of southeast Asia would fall to communism. This was the Cold War era when tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were extremely high.

The U.S. fully committed ground troops in 1965. In the preceding years, the U.S. continued to increase troop deployments to Vietnam. It soon became evident that the U.S. would struggle to fight the North Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong forces continually ambushed the U.S. The dense Vietnamese jungles were the sight of several bloody battles. The Vietnam War exacted a large toll on human life. Approximately 3 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians died. 58,220 U.S. service members died.

In addition, more and more Americans grew to disagree with the war. This was most evident in the younger generation. However, other Americans fully supported the war. This created a polarizing divide in American society. Anti-war protests and counter-protests occurred, which often led to violence. An overall feeling of revolution soon followed. Many historians argue that America was at its most divided during the Vietnam War.

Burns’ Documentary

To tell the story of the Vietnam War, Burns uses hours of archival footage. He also interviewed 79 individuals about their experience with the war. The interviewees included American service members and their families, Americans who opposed the war, and North and South Vietnamese people who participated in the war. This wide range of interview subjects provides a full perspective on the war. Burns does not present a one-sided view on the Vietnam War. Rather, he offers various viewpoints on a complex and polarizing war. This is one of the reasons for the documentary’s high quality.

Ken Burnss The Vietnam War revisits a dark chapter in American and Vietnamese history. He explores the war in a thoughtful manner, making sure to give equal voice to the various sides of the war. Thanks to this detailed and thoughtful approach, Ken Burns created a documentary that was universally praised. The Vietnam War is regarded by many as Burns’ best documentary.


The poster for Muhammad Ali. The poster features the famous boxer against a solid white backdrop.
Muhammad Ali is the latest Ken Burns documentary, which was released in 2021. Source: PBS

Ken Burns has established himself as America’s premier documentary filmmaker. He creates moving, engaging, and powerful documentaries that explore their subjects in great detail. In September 2021, Burns’ documentary Muhammad Ali aired on PBS. This documentary used many of Burns’ techniques, such as archival footage, narration, and interviews. Muhammad Ali was lauded by many as a detailed and powerful portrait of one of the greatest sports figures in history.

This article looked at some of Ken Burns’ best documentaries. Although only five were discussed, Burns has many more outstanding documentaries. After reading this article, I hope you are inspired to seek out some of Burns’ documentaries and give them a watch.

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