Filmmaker Ken Burns turns 70

devastating — and distressingly topical

I’ve been watching films directed or co-directed by Ken Burns, for decades.

In an interview, possibly on 60 Minutes, he noted that his academic family moved frequently, including southeastern France, Delaware, and Ann Arbor, MI.

His mother, Lyla Smith (née Tupper) Burns, a biotechnician, was diagnosed with breast cancer when Ken was three and died when he was 11. He said that circumstances shaped his career. His father-in-law, psychologist Gerald Stechler, shared a significant insight: “He told me that my whole work was an attempt to make people long gone come back alive.”

From the Wikipedia: “In 1977, having completed some documentary short films, he began work on adapting David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Developing a signature style of documentary filmmaking in which he ‘adopted the technique of cutting rapidly from one still picture to another in a fluid, linear fashion [and] then pepped up the visuals with ‘first hand’ narration gleaned from contemporary writings and recited by top stage and screen actors,’ Burns made the feature documentary Brooklyn Bridge (1981), which was narrated by McCullough, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary and ran on PBS in the United States.”

The films

I saw Brooklyn Bridge well after the fact, and The Civil War (1990) ss it came out. But it was with Baseball (1994) that I fell in love with his style. Someone gave me the accompanying book, which is at arm’s length in my office.

I had to watch Thomas Jefferson (1997), Jazz (2001), The Central Park Five (2012), The Roosevelts (2012) – I even have the soundtrack),  Jackie Robinson (2016) and The Vietnam War (2017) because of my great personal interest.

Here’s the blog post I wrote about Country Music (2019).

Then Hemingway (2021), because I didn’t know much about him, and Muhammad Ali (2021), because I thought I knew almost everything about him, but I did not. Benjamin Franklin (2022) was not that engaging to me.

The U.S. and the Holocaust (2023), which I’ve begun watching, is an exciting choice. Had he not covered this territory in The Roosevelts and Defying the Nazis? But it is powerful stuff.

THR’s review called it “devastating — and distressingly topical. Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein’s six-hour PBS documentary explores what the United States did and could have done in response to the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust.” Here is A Conversation With Co-Directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick On Authoritarian Parallels. A CBS Sunday Morning piece is interspersed with info re: wildflowers, but it’s easy to skip to the interview.

Ken Burns considers himself a patriot. When he appeared on Finding Your Roots in 2014,  he was pained to discover that he had a Tory sympathizer as an ancestor who fought for the British during the American Revolution.
In 2015, around the time of the rebroadcast of The Civil War, he noted on Morning Joe that the Confederate flag issue was not really about heritage.

In the fall of 2022, I received a mass email from Ken Burns.

It was a pitch to vote for incumbent Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) for reelection. She won in November 2022.

S. Epatha Merkerson is 70

Isaac Hawkins Hall

Epatha MerkersonThe actor S. Epatha Merkerson played Lieutenant Anita Van Buren in 390 episodes of the long-running procedural Law and Order, from 1993 to 2010. I thought she was very credible in playing someone who had to deal with some added burdens in the workplace. She talked about the wigs she wore for the show.

I got the sense that Alex Trebek was a big fan of hers when she appeared on Celebrity JEOPARDY in 1999.

But she’s done a lot more. Epatha was nominated for two Tony Awards. She was up for Best Actress In A Play in 2008 for Come Back, Little Sheba, and Best Featured Actress In A Play in 1990 for The Piano Lesson.

I did not know that she was Reba in 16 episodes of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, primarily because I never watched the show. Currently, she plays Sharon Goodwin on Chicago Med, a program I’ve watched exactly once.


What I did see her in was the Freedom Tales episode of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which first aired on February 5, 2019. It reran early in 2022.

One of the most significant findings was that an ancestor of Epatha, Patrick Hawkins, was one of 272 people enslaved by the Jesuit priests of what is now Georgetown University who were sold to two planters in Louisiana in 1838. Money was tight for the educational institution. There’s a pretty good Wikipedia page on the subject.

WETA, the PBS station in DC hosted a screening and discussion of the episode. here’s a five-minute clip. Also, read Sister Melannie Svoboda’s blog.

“Despite her success, Merkerson recounted how she had ‘always wanted to know’ where her family came from. When she asked her grandmother to tell her about their ancestors, her grandmother responded, ‘It’s painful. You don’t need to hear any of this.'” This is not an unusual response.

“The ‘inventory’ compiled by the Jesuits for the sale listed the name of every slave. On the list were five of Patrick Hawkins’ relatives, his wife Letty, his son Peter, and his father Isaac. Georgetown recently renamed the Former Jesuit Residence after Isaac Hawkins following student protests over its original name that honored one of the Jesuits involved in the sale.

“Brought to tears, Merkerson responded, ‘They have names…they have names. They’re not just faceless people.'”


At the end of the episode, S. Epatha Merkerson attended a reunion of the GU272 Descendants Association. “GU272 is dedicated to preserving the memory, commemorating the lives, and restoring the honor of the GU272 enslaved people sold by the Maryland Province Jesuits in 1838 and those who were enslaved before, during, and after the sale by the Society of Jesus. As Descendants, we commit to reconciling our ancestors’ enslavement, reconnecting families, and renewing ties lost.”

Epatha said on the Finding Your Roots episode that maybe she’ll be able to take courses at Georgetown. Implicit was that she should be able to take them for free.

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