Ken Burns’ Benjamin Franklin — the documentary filmmaker’s latest deep dive into an important figure in American history — is now out on PBS. When I heard the film was coming out, I got excited. Through the magic of filmmaking, documentaries like this one can make the past come alive. They can take historical scholarship and turn it into an exciting drama. The music rises and falls; you can’t help but feel carried away.
That feeling is pretty compelling; it’s also tough to let go of it. Historical documentaries try to make you feel like you’ve been through an experience, and that now you understand, but I think that feeling is a little dangerous. It’s so important that we learn about the events of the past, but it’s also really important that we don’t think we know everything. More and more, we seem to be looking to history as a source of entertainment, and that has all kinds of complicated implications in how we think about the past.
Looking to the Past for Certainty
You may have noticed that there are a whole lot of documentaries around these days. It feels like every time I peek at the offerings on Netflix or other streaming services, I’m presented with options for everything from true-crime docs about serial killers to docuseries about cults to deep dives on historical figures like the aforementioned Benjamin Franklin.
There are, of course, lots of reasons why so many documentaries are getting made. To be sure, the pandemic has been a huge factor, but beyond that I wonder if we’re also craving a kind of settled narrative that just isn’t available to us in the present moment. Life is pretty confusing these days. We’re living through global health crises, wars, divisive politics, and the terrifying implications of ongoing climate change. It feels really hard to know anything.
Under those circumstances, you can see the appeal of plopping yourself down in front of something like a history documentary. You watch, and you get to feel like you know the story of something that happened. The past, in that way, can feel settled and certain in a way that feels comfortable to us in the present.
The Positive Side of History as Entertainment
There are, of course, some good things about all of this. The best documentaries ask compelling questions and leave us feeling a sense of wonder about the world. When I was a kid, I remember being so bored in history classes that I thought I had no interest in the topic whatsoever. As an adult, I’ve become really interested in the history of the American Civil War, but I remember blowing off entire reading assignments on the subject in high school.
The success of historical documentaries like Burns’ The Civil War, dated and problematic as it undeniably is, is absolutely part of why I’ve come to realize that I actually love learning about the past. With so many documentaries available — and the proliferation of history podcasts and companies like MasterClass that sit on the edge of education and entertainment — it’s more possible than ever for people to realize, outside of the context of school, that they actually enjoy learning. The risk is that these learning opportunities can lead to a situation where the dominant historical narrative is being curated by people and companies driven by profit rather than by the rigors of historical research and truth.
How We Feel About the Past
As who we are changes, how we feel about who we used to be changes too. Contemporary criticisms of Burns’ The Civil War are a good example of this. Burns himself has admitted that he “would probably be making a different kind of film now,” from the one he made in 1990. The film he made, though, was incredibly influential, and for many people it concretized a lot of what the American Civil War became in our collective memory.
There is a lot of excellent material in the documentary, but unfortunately, on the whole, its conception of the American Civil War itself is deeply flawed. From perpetuating the idea that the war was about a failure to compromise to the idea that a man like Robert E. Lee “disapproved” of slavery, The Civil War presents a limited and occasionally troubling perspective. That perspective becomes even more problematic when it becomes the dominant way the war itself is remembered. It takes a lot of time and energy to undo these misconceptions — to help people open their minds to the idea that things might have been different than how they were portrayed.
History Isn’t Just Facts
In the end, it’s important to remember that history is a discipline and a discourse. History isn’t just a set of facts that we receive and know how to interpret, but an ongoing conversation that happens over time. That conversation changes, as I said above, based on who we are and what we value in a given period. It also changes based on how the facts are presented and who controls the power to present them.
Documentaries are not, generally, conversations; they are statements. The best ones — and Burns’ Benjamin Franklin might very well end up being one of these — encourage us to explore further and to ask more questions. They might even leave us feeling a little unsettled, like we aren’t sure whether the great historical figures of the past are heroes or villains. That’s a good thing, because most of the time, the figures of the past are neither. They are people, like us, full of flaws and doubts. Hopefully, when we learn about them, we learn about the importance of being willing to change our minds and ourselves.