Ken Burns: the great American storyteller


Photo courtesy of Hillel Steinberg

The man himself, Ken Burns.

Dylan Mininger, Entertainment Editor

I walked in to search for a seat, and the house was packed to the brim with an eclectic group of people, old and young alike, waiting for one of the greatest American storytellers to take the stage.

Most who showed up expecting a seat were directed to a little room outside the ballroom with plastic chairs and TVs, some sort of spill-off area for the latecomers. What seemed like a bunch of distracted students piled in around me in the spill-off room, perhaps enticed to come as bonus for a lecture. Then the man himself, Ken Burns, walked into the spill-off room to say a quick hello, and the students were glowing.

Ken Burns is the premiere American documentary filmmaker, who’s dedicated his career to making epic documentaries surrounding many pivotal aspects of American history and life.

Some of his most famous works include “Jazz,” a 10-hour miniseries on the entire history and scope of Jazz music; “The Civil War,” which is an 11-hour documentary that just screams of something you had watch to in school growing up; and his more recent series, “The Vietnam War.”

Ken is not only a filmmaker — he is also a storyteller of American history, as well as a pioneer of many pivotal documentary techniques. Steve Jobs dubbed his editing style “the Ken Burns Effect.” His films are essentially just still images moving around the screen and talking head interviews, but what is magnificent about his style is the way he takes these still images and displays them, as if showing the audience the movement that existed behind these photographs. Burns had said it himself while looking at a picture of the prohibition era, “this is a representation of once fully alive past.”

Tulane Professor Walter Isaacson moderated the lecture. Isaacson wrote Steve Jobs’ official biography and was CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine.

A short reel of Burns’ life work opened the lecture. It was truly spectacular to see how many dense, important topics and events this man covered in in-depth documentaries about.

Burns’ list of upcoming works were shocking. He’s working on multiple films and has releases planned up until 2028. The man is an absolute workhorse.

The lecture was a discussion of history. All of Burns’ documentaries are about race and racial divide within America. Isaacson asked intermittent questions about the gritty details about Burns’ Vietnam documentary, his upcoming documentary about the history of country music, and the recent removal of confederate statues.

Burns was on fire, flexing his historical knowledge to talk about the racism in building and displaying Confederate monuments. Burns stated in regards to current discussions about the Civil War and the rebel flag, “you do not celebrate people who are responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths of loyal Americans.”  The lecture was also chock-full of jabs at Trump and current politics, all coming from a man who has spent thousands of hours in libraries and with survivors and historical figures, a man who understands the importance of telling the full story. Ken Burns isn’t the world’s best documentarian because he picks important topics — he’s the best because he brings these topics to life again.

Later that evening, I was sitting in a popular spot in uptown New Orleans where people go to drink, chat and watch the sunset. Suddenly, a large black SUV drove by. Who else but Ken Burns was hanging out the window, checking out the sunset as well. I was shocked. I yelled “Hey Burns! Great talk today!”

He leaned further out the window and gave me a solid thumbs up.