Six months after starting this blog, and two days before Ken Burns broadcasts his epic WWII doc this Sunday, it's as good a time as any as to explain why I titled this ongoing project Ken Burns Hates Mexicans.
A recent TV column critiquing Burns and his upcoming series, The War, began with a reference to this blog suggesting I'm implying the PBS filmmaker actually hates Mexicans. My bad for not explaining my intentions more precisely -- and for not including a definition of the concepts of metaphor and satire somewhere amongst my Led Zeppelin posts.
For the record: of course I don't believe Ken Burns actually hates Mexicans. Vato may have an issue with over-fried chimichongas (as I do) or derivative roc en espanol (as should everyone), but who knows?, I never met the guy. When I say "Ken Burns" I don't literally mean the so-called liberal white guy with the dorky bowl haircut who makes tedious so-called "American" documentaries for PBS. Instead when I say "Ken Burns" I'm talking about the total, whole, and collective so-called liberal white media bloviating across the multicultural landscape. About Latinos, about race and class, about "the other." This includes not only those with dorky bowl haircuts, but those making movies called...oh, I don't know, Quinceanera.
And when I say these types "hate," I don't literally mean dislike intensely, or having aversion towards, but instead I'm talking about the ignorance, simplistic reductions, misunderstandings, and/or condescension that generally define these gringos' opinions, statements, and, yes, even their documentaries about Mexicans. That is, of course, those few times these well-intentioned do-gooders actually turn their fickle gaze on Brown people. Indifference being another variation of the "hate" metaphor.
And when I say "Mexicans" I mean Raza in general. Brown people. Mi gente. U.S. Latinos primarily, but not always.
Finally, this is not to say that I don't disagree with much of the Latino criticism of the Burns series, because I don't. For me, a Burns film is like an Ansel Adams photo, middlebrow, pretty to look at, but devoid of real thought or analysis. But the issues raised by his latest series go much deeper than that.
Stepping back for a moment from the metaphoric and into the specific, for me Burns' The War embodies all of the issues mentioned above -- and more. Throughout his long career Burns has constantly talked about his films as being stories about "America." Sure they may ostensibly be stories about about Jazz, or baseball, he would maintain, but on a larger level they are stories about "us," "our history."
But with Burns's simplistic and retro Black/White reading of race in America and a filmography that demonstrates an inability to see Brown people as active participants in American history, these self-describe stories about America have always felt incomplete. And while this wouldn't be a problem if his documentaries were relegated to obscure film festivals, a Burns documentary series, instead, is a well marketed media event, complete with $55 dollar coffee table books for sale at Barns and Noble, study guides available for high school history teachers, and appearances on Keith Olbermann.
So the series starts on Sunday. I'll be TiVoing the episodes and will have more to say in the week or so to come, but with Ugly Betty starting again, and the finale of Top Chef coming up, no promises. For now I'll leave you with a couple of reviews and opinions: LA Weekly weighs in here (with a brief yet sympathetic nod to the controversy), Carlos Guerra opines from a Tejano perspective here, and for an especially thoughtful piece in the New Yorker (which pans the series) go here.
UPDATE: Cecilia Alvear has a great piece on the doc in the Washington Post here. Another WaPo story that reports about the historical experience of Latinos in WWII here. And a Los Angeles Times profile on an East L.A. Mexican American WWII vet that Burns was forced to include in his doc to here.