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tv   Overheard With Evan Smith  PBS  September 24, 2016 4:30pm-5:01pm PDT

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- [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. - i'm evan smith. he's an iconic emmy award winning and academy award nominated documentary filmmaker whose credits include the civil war, baseball, and jazz. his latest film for pbs is jackie robinson. he's ken burns. this is overheard. let's me honest. this is about the ability to learn about the experience of not having been taught properly. how would you avoid it? what has befallen other nations in africa? and you could say he made his own bed, but you cause him to sleep in it. you saw a problem and over time took it on. let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak. are you gonna run for president? i think i just got a f from you actually.
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this is over. (applause) ken burns, welcome. - thank you. - honored to meet you, great to have you here. - it's my pleasure. - congratulations on this wonderful project. - thank you very much. i should say that's it's the great good fortune of growing old and public television that i share the authorship of this with sarah burns and david mcmahon. sarah burns happens to be my oldest daughter. this is - proud moment for a partent. - we made a film together, the three of us called the central park five. it came out a few years ago, and when that was done we were plowing directly into jackie robinson, and so when you say that i've done it, i'm always aware on every film that is an unbelievable collaborative effort, but in this case the coproducers and codirectors are sarah burns and david mcmahon. - look at the generosity of that statement. - [ken] actually it has the extra added virtue of being true. - [evan] is this a race movie or a baseball movie? - it's a good story about one of the most important
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people in all of american history. this is not the first progress in civil rights since the civil war, but it's the beginning of the modern era of civil rights. - [evan] it's a transition point or a reflection point. - when jackie robinson walks out to first base on april 15, 1947, martin luther king is a junior at morehouse college. harry truman hasn't integrated the military. brown versus board of education hasn't happened. there haven't been organized sit ins. though jackie did it as a teenager on his own, and rosa parks is a decade away from refusing to give up her seat on a montgomery, alabama bus, something jackie had done three years earlier in 44 at fort hood in texas. what you have in some ways is the beginning of the modern era. he's evolved from the a philip randolf of the brotherhood of sleeping car ports, and web to boys and to a lesser extent some of the other leaders of the earliest 20th century. he's now plowing forward and permitting these other manifestations to take place. this is first of all a great story in sports.
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he is the most imporant person in the history of baseball, our national pastime. he's not the best player arguably, but he is the most important, and then it is a great american story because it deals with our central subtheme, after you deal with the nature of freedom, human freedom, the tension between what i want and our collective needs together, then race is the central theme, and i think it's a much larger human story about a person who takes on his shoulders this enormous burden, turning the other cheek, and so he was a central part of our baseball series that came out in 94 in almost every episode and we thought we done him, but the chance to do a stand alone prompted by his widow rachel who's 93, with all of her marbles and some of mine, and i want them back. (laughter) i want them back. we were able to do a deeper, deeper dive, and to help shed, you know, what happens when you have a mythological figure is that mythology gets in the way of really understanding. the barnacles of sentimentality across
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- we think we know jackie robinson as we think we know many of the subjects - look at george washington who we say wooden teeth, never had wooden teeth. threw a dollar coin across the petomic, couldn't happen. never told a lie. everybody lies. chopped down a cherry tree. none of this happens. this was invented in the after math to help glorify him and make him palatable to schools. - [evan] what about jackie robinson? i'm interested in this because i did think to myself and looking at this film there was a lot that i didn't know. there was a lot about him as a personality and his disposition toward the world that i don't know that i knew or that i hadn't been told or maybe i had been told, but idealized it or romantisized it. - that's exactly right. - what do you think we don't know? and why don't we know it about jackie robinson? - i know why we don't know it first of all, which is we live in a media culture which we are buried in a tsunami of informaiton so what tends to happen - some of even true. - a few things are true, and what we have is a kind of superficial conventional wisdom that then accrues, i think i know who jackie robinson is.
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he turned the other cheek for three years, all this stuff. maybe know a little bit more, branch ricky is god who bestows points like michael angelo's finger and bestows his son. this real story is so much more complicated that everything changes, and what's so nice is that the complexity doesn't diminish him, and this isn't revisionism where the pendulum swings to where we're not throwing him out because he's. - we understand he's a demential human being. this is a multi-generational portrait of an african american family, which you don't get very often. this is an extraordinary love story between two people who loved each other but not without it's tensions and it's flash points. there's a wonderful story, and she's there to narrate us through incredibly difficult, incredibly pointy and incredibly moving, and incredibly dramatic moments not only her and their life, but in the history of the united states and so what happens is it permits us to at every juncture to say, "the familiar tropes of the old story, "the children's books don't work here." what we're suggesting is something great.
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i'll give you an example, not with jackie, but in a larger sense which is we lament that there are no heroes today, and that's because in that same superficial conventional media that we have, conventional wisdom is that we think heroes are perfect, and the greeks who invented the notion of heroism told us thousands of years ago that heroism isn't perfection, it's in fact a very delicate negotiation, sometimes a war between a person's obvious strengths and their not so obvious, but perhaps equal weaknesses, and it is that negotiation and that tension that sometimes that war that defines heroism. what happens is we have the unfortunate tendency in a media culture to throw somebody out when we find the slightest bit of lack of perfection and say, we so sorry we have no heroes. there are thousands of heroes, because it's how you negotiate with the bad stuff, both your own flaws as well as the stuff that happens to you that defines heroism. - i would say that's absolutely true, but another thing that happens is that we carve away the parts that we don't wanna see.
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- [ken] that's exactly right. - so that when we present jackie robinson, the image that comes to my mind's eye is of him sliding and then you quickly go to a shot of him with branch ricky or him with other white executives of baseball at the time, and the heroism of his having been the first. he's kind of the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story. one of the things i loved most about this movie was the juxtaposition of jackie robinson later in life with muhammad ali an with jim brown, and the idea that somehow jackie robinson, who had been the first, without whom none of this other stuff would have happened. jackie robinson is now being put in the position of being too much of an accommodationist - an uncle tom. - and muhammad ali and jim brown are representing the militancy of the time, and jackie robinson is being criticized for not being sufficiently an advocate for this position. - and he had been the most radical - how could you have been more radical? - exactly. there's a wonderful historian, yura williams, who says the definition in the 1940s of black masculinity is jackie robinson,
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but by the 1960s that has tired, and so you have a muhammad ali and a jim brown, and carlos smith at the olympics. - at the olympics, right, fist in the air. - that becomes and some of the more radical folks, at the same time our laws are being transformed in civil rights acts by lyndon johnson. there's a kind of impatience that it's not really working, and it's not happening fast enough. there are a lot of people who migrate to a more violent posture, a more militant posture, and so we're trying to understand it, and jackie got caught up in that, just as dr. king did. he was often there's some very pointed comments by malcolm x talking about passive ministers and there can be only one passive minister that he's thinking about. - but jackie robinson did not shrink. what i loved about him, the first part i loved was the juxtaposition. the second part that i loved was jackie robinson basically going back at these guys. you're wrong here. he wrote a column, newspaper column, i remember once specifically that you cited in which he took malcolm x on directly.
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- yes, but also criticized the naacp for not advancing younger leaders more quickly. what you have is somebody, this is some ways a existential story. a lot of people talk the talk. do you walk the walk? and jackie robinson got up everyday to try to improve the lives of other people and one of the stories that we can sort of disengage ourselves from because it's too convenient and it's the subject of children's books and statues is the famous saying where in that first season, 1947, they have gone to crosley field, incredibly racist. the tuperative comments are being hurled at jackie, and pee wee rease walks over and puts his arm around him. that's one of the great moments in the mythology of jackie robinson. it didn't happen. - another thing that we - there's a statue outside of the great american ballpark in cincinnati that shows this. there's children's books about this. but it didn't happen. it's not in jackie's autobiography. it's not in the white press. it's not in the black press which would have done 15 related articles. also that first year jackie played first and pee wee is at short. you would have to go across the diamond
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which never happens before. maybe later years, and what happened is they probably did, after many years they were together and they threw their arm around her, had a conversation, and that migrated back in time to that first season, because no pun intended, we white people wanted to have skin in the game. we wanted to feel like we were good and that we were capable of participating this and supporting it. another thing is we always invest branch ricky with much more authorship of this moment than before, as if he said my conscience is stirring, and we pointed out in our baseball series that he was also a good businessman, and he knew he could put african american seats, fill african american - seats in the stadiums. - in ebbet's field, but and it's true he had this great conscience. he was a very, very amazing human being, but the african american press have been pushing for this for decades, so had the left wing press in the united states including the communist press. oh, i don't wanna hear about the communist press. the daily worker, right. so had the left leaning
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republican, i have not lost my mind, left leaning republican mayor of new york city, firlia auglaria. there were state commissions that were investigating discriminatory hiring practices. there was lots of pressure on branch ricky, and he had planned not to have one single son that he would bestow, but to bring up a handful of african americans, but because of all this pressure and this failure, his anxiety that maybe he was gonna lose control of the moment, he hears about jackie from an african american reporter who he's in touch with who had a good try out, and he said, "oh yes i remember him. "he's the great football star, and the guy "you refuse to give up is at fort hood," and blah blah blah. it all plows accidentially as well as on purpose towards jackie, and not this sense that it was all set out to be. angels arrived, annouced the virgin birth, this happened (laughter) - it's a lot messier than it seems. - here's the other thing that is perhaps even more important as you get to know how competitive, how fiercely competitive jackie is, you begin to understand the the turning
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of the other cheek is unbelievably it's a tough thing to do. he's gonna turn the other cheek for three years, one in the minors and two in the majors is not like his character. he's actually going against who he is in order to make sure that this experiment succeeds. - amazing. - it's one of the great stories. - [evan] one of the things i loved also, another part of this that i really enjoyed was the story that rachel robinson tells. they get married and instead of going on a traditional honeymoon, the honeymoon is we're gonna go to spring training. they get on, they attempt to get on the plane. - a series of planes that are gonna take them from los angeles to florida for the spring training. he's joining the royals which is the triple a baseball team of the dodgers, and ricky's picked it so he can go and be in montreal where it's a better environment for him, but they got spring training in florida which is not the greatest. - they attempt to board planes with the team and they're bunked for white travelers once, twice, and eventually
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they have to ride a bus because they cannot get a flight. they will not get a flight. rachel robinson in fact tells this story. she's sort of distraught. this is my honeymoon, this her moment. - her mother in law comes as they're about to leave los angeles and brings them a shoe box full of fried chicken, and she's embarrassed, but mallie robinson, jackie's mother knows of the world. k row georgia where african americans are being lidged all the time, and guests in pasadena where they have to deal with a new form of sometimes overt, sometimes covert racism. she understands and rachel has never even seen bathrooms more colored and so she goes into the white ladies bathroom to sort of compose herself, and as she says, do what she had to do, and then walk out and all these women are looking at her, but there's this moment of unbelievable shame and then rachel comes back and says fiercely, "the fried chicken was great." they started off with embarrassment at this gesture from the older generation, and suddenly understood that the accommodation
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was gonna have to be a part of their lives yet again. - i asked you if this was a movie about baseball or race. really the better question is, is it a movie about jackie or is it a movie about rachel, because on some levels it really is rachel's story, and as you say, rachel is in the movie, present, narrating, telling stories, and she was in fact the one going back to the decision to do the story to begin with. - she called me up after the baseball series and just lobbied for an awfully long time, and finally i saw some daylight, and i said, before that, i said, "rachel, if you find "somebody else to do it, he deserves a stand alone, "but do it." she says, "no, no, no, i'm waiting for you." - her dignity and her, her dignity in this movie on camera is remarkable. - we had the opportunity as you did yesterday to interview not only the president, but the first lady as well and these are four people, hurdling through space and time, two couples and they're very similar. jackie is walking through a door that no one has walked through before and he probably can't do it without her, most definitely can't do it without her,
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and the president walked through the door no one had ever walked through before as an african american, and he probably couldn't do it without michelle, and it's interesting to hear jackie's there and voice and spirit and rachel is resurrecting him, but they're both there talking about what you need to come home when the opprobrium of the world has been heaped on you, not because of the content of your character, but because of the color of your skin, and the president says so movingly, it's so great to come home to find someone who loves you and has your back, which is exactly what rachel is saying and you suddenly realize this an old trope in american history. - we haven't mvoed an inch. - well we have because i got to interview an african american president and first lady about the first baseball player. - right but at the same time, the same thing about the president was said about jackie robinson. maybe he's not black enough. - our film is got issues of the confederate flag and integrated swimming pools and driving while black
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and stop and frisk, and all sorts of stuff. the tropes that are going on now, so you do feel the pessimist could feel that the more things change the more they stay the same, but to me what i've understood from doing this for 40 years is from ecclesiastes, "what has been will be again. "what has been done will be done again. "there's nothing new under the sun." there's no cycles of history. we're not condemned to repeat what we don't remember, that's very convenient, but human nature repeats itself and superimposes itself over the seemingly random chaos events and we can perceive patterns and themes. mark twain is supposed to have said that history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. my job is to listen to those rhymes and to try to hear somethings. i think we can, the pessimist can say, this is a glass half empty, but at the same time you can understand that progress has been made. what you can't do is let up on the accelerator. what you can't do, and this is what jackie understood, that life is measured only by the way it affects other people's lives. it says on his gravestone, and that is what
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this is about, that's why it's an existential story. you get every morning to improve the lives of others you are walking the walk. - you are the ecclesiastes of documentary filmmakers in the sense that the way you've approached filmmaking over time, different films, but what has always been is still the case. you tackle a subject thoroughly, you tend to tackle institutions which i think really hard, how do you make a nine episode series about the civil war or a nine episode or 10 episode series about baseball. these are institutions that are so large and so difficult to get your arms around, but your approach has been similar, and i think there's something comforting about a ken burns project, because you know going into it that there are gonna be certain standards, and certain visual cues and audio cues, and you know what you're getting even though the subject is different. that has been a deliberate decision on your part. - it has been deliberate. i mean style is, you could say, is just the authentic application of techniques. all craftsmen, all artists have lots of techniques at their disposal, but if you
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- but it evolves. - and it evolves, but if it's done organically, honorably, then people recognize. this is why you can go into a gallery and there are all paintings. you go, "oh, man. "i get it, that's all de gah." i've tried to live that way, to not let technology be a tail that wags the dog but rather control the technology to serve something that's not glamorous, but to serve a complicated story and we're always not trying to tell you what we already know, as some documentary filmmakers do, and the last time i checked that's called homework, but share with you our process of discovery, and that's huge. each film is saying who are we? who are these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves americans? what does an investigation of the past tell us about not only where we were but where we are and where we may be going. history, if you know it, it's a kind of armor, and i'll give you one simple, very quick example. when the '08, '09 meltdown happened, friends of mine, even in the financial industry said, "this is like the depression." i said, "no, it's not."
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in the depression, in some cities, the animals in the zoo were shot and the meat was distributed to the poor. when that happens i'll admit we're in a depression, and then all of a sudden that gives you a kind of perspective to sort of deal with things on a different level. you don't have to chicken little, the sky is falling, and you can also say let's take this seriously but let's not over do it. let's not invest it. - we tend to romanticize in the positive direction and we also romanticize in the negative direction. it's never as good as it seems to me and never as bad. if i went back and looked, as i understand the story, your first film was a documentary you made in anarbor. is that right? - no, everybody - was that a film? - no, my dad gave me a camera and i went out and shot different things there. my first film that i signed is one that is the first one for pbs on the brooklyn bridge. that was the film. - based on the mccaloh book. - the construction, he had done a book on the construction of it and half the film is about the construction the other half was - more of your project than - yeah, and then i brought david to be the narrator, because he knew the story as well as any
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and that was taboo in those days. your narrator was alexander scorbi or orsten wells, and you got. i thought why? why would you groom somebody who understood the story? - if i went back and looked at brooklyn bridge or i went back and looked even before that at the stuff that you were shooting more casually back in anarbor, would i see in those productions elements that i would recognize instantly as the ken burns. - you would seen in a film i made as my sort of senior thesis at hampshire college in ameris, massachusetts for old sterburge village which is a living history museum in new england, the beginnings of that, and then certainly in brooklyn bridge you would see everything that you see today, and i hope it's evolved but at the same time that film is still a lovely little film i think because i was able to just figure out how to tell a complex story with those things. when we talked about techniques, there four oral. not only the third person narrator, the voice of god, but a first person voice is reading letters, journals, love letters, military counts, newspaper counts, complex sound effects
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that are willing that old photograph to life and period music, and on the visual side you have interviews, you have still photographs. you have news reels, and you have live modern cinematography. there are thousands of other techniques we have, but if you understand those four visual and four oral techniques in combination. some films have no talking. some films have no first person voices. some people, like lewis and clark, have lots of live cinematography. some like the upcoming films don't have very much live cinematography because we've got news reels and photographs. everything is calibrated so to me, each film feels unique and at the same time they're employing the same we hope honorable relationship to the subject and that taking the time to do it, god bless public television, that permits us to say that this style can be consistent throughout and yet each one is it's own set of a single film is a million, literally, no exaggeration. a million problems, but i don't see problems in
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a pejorative sense. i see it in a way to try to overcome the necessary inevitable, lawful friction that comes, like how do you start? which is the first shot? what's the second shot? these are all problems that you have to solve. that's what i love. that's what gets me up in the morning, and a series might be 10 million problems, but that's a good thing. - the robinson film is - two parts, four hours. - four hours total. we have just a couple minutes left. the next things that the next thing of yours that we'll see - your next thing is one called defying the nazis, the sharp war about a unitarian minister and his wife that got jews out of just on the eve of the holocaust, and then the next thing is a big 10 episode, 18 hour history of the war in vietnam. - another big institution. and you described it to me as maybe your biggest - oh, it's most definitely. it's obviously, it's where a lot of our own inability to communicate with others, ourselves, metastasized, and if you add that to a media culture which celebrates the independent free agentness of us all that is to say,
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the birthplace of narcissism, you've got a terrible soup, because we don't listen to each other, we talk over each other, and what i try to do is unpack the vietnam war. almost everything you think about is probably not true. - i don't want you to ruin the ending for us as a spoiler, but we lose, right? is that right? - we do. we do. - okay good, and then you've got a big country music. - yep, we just opened our editing room at the beginning of the year on country music. we've been filming and it was great to leave the editing room on vietnam, waist deep in the deep muddy, sometimes higher, and to go to nashville and talk about country music which is just, as people say, three quarters of the truth. if i had my others, i like to have just straight names. civil or baseball, jazz, just to not confuse you about what it is. - is vietnam called vietnam? - the vietnam war, and i would call this i can't stop loving you. this is sort of the epitome of country music, and it is so much about the sort of stripped away american values about what
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things are. my last interview was actually with willie nelson in his bus, outside his hotel in washington d.c. at rush hour. - you've obviously cleaned your clothes since then, because i don't - well the first thing everyone asks was did i leave with a contact high? we were warned in advance that willie would be, as he is, often as notoriously closed lipped. he was incredibly great, and wonderful and help us understand - you went to him. - some important people in the history, and he could tell you what it meant to understand what hank williams was going through. - you go from the early days of country all the way up through the - i would say - the kind of contemporary - no, we're historians, amateur we may be. - [evan] so where do you stop? - we always wanna stop or at least lift our foot off the accelerator of sort of definitive narrative about 25, 30 years out, because that's the problem of journalism in near history, and so i imagine that country music was pronounced dead, and johnny cash was his,
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columbia didn't pick up his contract, and everybody says he's dead, and then a year later garth brooks is filling stadiums with 60,000 people. that's a good place to go. - so you stop at garth brooks. - we'll see. we don't really know yet where and we'll interview. we've interviewed a lot of people outside of country music and go up to some folks who are now in country music, but we wanna be, we got a lot of criticism in baseball and jazz for not being more definitive, but you go to somebody and say in jazz, tell me in the last 25 years who is the equal of armstrong and ellington and charlie parker, miles davis, and they'll say, "well we won't know." and i go, that rests my case. - let me just offer you this. any film that is a history of country music in which garth brooks is the point at which it goes black, i'm fine with that. (laughter) free advice, do with it what you will. ken, what a treat to get to see you, to talk to you about this stuff. thank you for being here. - it's my pleasure. - [evan] ken burns, thank you so much. good luck with the film. (applause) - [voiceover] we'd love to have you join us in the studio. visit our website at
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to find invitations to interviews, q and as with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes. - beyond country music which is coming out in 2019, and in addition to those five or six films that i've set in motion where i'm serving as executive producer and i'm trying to help other filmmakers help them with fundraising and help them with guidance and stuff like that. my own stuff that we are already started working our project on ernest hemmingway. we wanna do a history of crime and punishment. - [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation.
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