Ken Burns may be America’s premiere documentarian, but he’s also one of its greatest storytellers, tackling, over a career spanning nearly four decades, such diverse subjects as the Civil and Vietnam Wars, baseball, jazz, national parks, cancer, Prohibition, the Roosevelts and radio.
He’s a mainstay of PBS, which gives a place of prominence to his elegant documentaries, some of which are (occasionally very) long series. They’re serious works on serious subjects, offering oral and visual histories based on interviews and research.
Now, The Christophers — founded by a Catholic priest and dedicated to encouraging people to make a positive difference in the world — are presenting Burns with The Christopher Life Achievement Award at the 69th annual Christopher Awards ceremony on May 17 (click here for info on the other winners).
Several of Burns’ projects have been honored with Christopher Awards, including “The Statue of Liberty,” “The Civil War,” “Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony,” “Jazz,” “Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip” and “The War.”
Interestingly enough, among the previous winners of The Christopher Life Achievement Award is author/historian David McCullough (“1776,” “John Adams”), who, in January 2017, also received the first Ken Burns American Heritage Prize, handed out by the American Prairie Reserve.
Said Burns at the time:
The Prize we present together to David acknowledges the historic role that the Great Plains played in helping to shape America’s character. It’s that same character, courage and fortitude which David’s tremendous work elucidates. This indomitable American spirit is alive and well today, in David and in the men and women in many arenas whose work reminds us that our lives serve a greater purpose.
In honoring Burns, Tony Rossi, The Christophers’ Director of Communications, said:
One of the most admirable aspects of Ken Burns’ approach to filmmaking is that he doesn’t approach history as dry facts. Instead, it’s about stories, human connections, and the emotions and experiences that bind us together by transcending time and place.
And while Ken knows that America and its citizens have sometimes fallen short of their own ideals, his films ultimately convey a spirit of hope that we learn from our mistakes to become better as a people and a nation.
For that reason, The Christophers are honored to present Ken Burns with our 2018 Christopher Life Achievement Award.
Contacted for comment, Burns had this to say:
I cannot think of a greater honor than receiving this life-time achievement award. The Christophers have long celebrated what is unique about each person and inspire us to contribute to the public good.
In our work, we look to tell the larger arc of our country’s history through the stories of individuals. By recognizing the actions of individuals I think we can better understand the issues of the past and the present, and hopefully do so in a way that is respectful of people’s lives, even when we tackle topics that are often hard to understand.
I’m inspired by The Christophers’ work and encourage others to embrace their belief that everyone can make a difference.
From Burns’ Website:
Country Music will chronicle the history of a uniquely American art form, rising from the experiences of remarkable people in distinctive regions of our nation. From southern Appalachia’s songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking western swing of Texas, from California honky tonks to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, we will follow the evolution of country music over the course of the twentieth century, as it eventually emerged to become America’s music.
It will be directed and produced by Ken Burns; written and produced by Dayton Duncan; and produced by Julie Dunfey.
Speaking of taking your time, also in Burns’ pipeline is a two-part, four-hour profile of boxer and activist Muhammad Ali. Production began in early 2016 for a 2021 premiere.
From an early 2017 story at Deadline.com:
In the announcement, Burns described Muhammad Ali as “maybe the most iconic figure of the 20th century,” explaining, “He arrived at exactly the right moment, amidst the tumult and upheaval of the 1960s, and he shaped his times with his powerful voice, mesmerizing presence, and achievements in the ring.”
“But beyond the astonishing athletic gifts and mountain of charisma, there’s a very complex, dynamic man whose life story has yet to receive the comprehensive treatment it deserves.”
In November 2017, Ken Burns accepted the Muhammad Ali Voice of Humanity award from the Society of Voice Arts & Sciences, at the 4th Annual 2017 Voice Arts® Awards at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Fredrick P. Rose Hall.
Take a look:
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Courtesy Ken Burns, PBS