History not for himself alone

Filmmaker Ken Burns' hype irks, but his documentary of feminist heroines is worth watching


November 07, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

One of the problems that often come with history done on television is distinguishing hype from historical record.

The bigger the budget, it seems, the greater the tendency for filmmakers to overstate the importance of their stories in an effort to get us inside their tents at the circus of prime-time programming -- especially in a sweeps ratings period like the one this month.

Since his triumph with "The Civil War" and an exclusive underwriting deal with General Motors, no one has had bigger budgets to work with than documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, and no one makes bigger claims for the importance of each of the persons he studies.

Last year, in talking about his documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright, Burns described the architect as a candidate for being the most important figure of post-war America. The year before, it was Lewis and Clark as the most important 18th-century Americans this side of Jefferson. Burns was setting the table for Jefferson, whom he would get to in his next documentary.

So, with "Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony," a new two-night documentary starting tonight on public television, it is not surprising to hear Burns say, "Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are quite simply the two most important women in American history. They changed for the better the lives of a majority of American citizens. They are responsible for the largest social transformation in American history."

Burns' case

Burns makes his case off-screen by saying, "When these two wonderfully opposite and equally brilliant women were born in the beginning of the 19th century, women in America had less rights than a lunatic. ... "

"No woman could serve on a jury, and most were considered incompetent to testify. They could not sign contracts, keep or invest earnings, own or inherit property. They had no rights ... in divorce, including the custody of the children they bore.

"In fact, women were the property of their husbands, who were entitled by law to their wives' wages and her body. And the ballot -- by which women might have voted to improve their status -- was denied to them also by law.

"But when these two extraordinary women passed from the scene in the opening days of the new 20th century," Burns says, "all of those, to us, self-evident rights, with the exception of the vote, had been achieved for women in America. And when the vote finally came, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was word for word the very words that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had submitted and re-submitted year after year, decade after decade, to an unhearing Congress."

That is essentially the arc of his four-hour film -- from the world that Stanton and Anthony were born into as American women at the start of the 19th century, to passage of the 19th Amendment. As usual, Burns is nothing if not eloquent in making his case.

But he takes it one step too far when he adds, "As a father of two daughters, as well as a filmmaker committed to sharing the American experience, I am outraged that this history has been hidden from us, has been so long neglected -- not just on our television screens but in our history books.

"Fortunately, Paul Barnes [co-producer of the film] and I were able to work with superb people to help mitigate to some extent the outrage and to help tell this story."

Why hadn't this story allegedly been told before? "I think that men have written the histories; it's as simple as that," he says.

History -- whether we are talking about the history of Anthony and Stanton or the history of what books get written and published by whom -- is never that "simple." And, in the end, that is where most of the problems with "Not for Ourselves Alone" and Burns' intellectual huckstering for his documentary reside.

There is no argument here that Anthony and Stanton are towering figures in our history. And "Not for Ourselves Alone" is an important piece of work, worth going out of one's way to see for the subject matter, if nothing else. But it is a flawed work both historically and dramatically.

Promising beginnings

As history, the film opens with great promise as it shows how Anthony and Stanton and the movement for women's suffrage grew out of two other reform movements of the time: the efforts to ban slavery and alcohol. The connection to the temperance movement is especially well-drawn, explaining the connection between drinking and spousal violence.

But by the end of the first night, Burns is in some historical hot water. Stanton, whom he calls "the most important woman in American history," uses a vile racist word to describe African-Americans in publicly opposing the 15th Amendment because it guarantees the right to vote to black men only. Her language is so offensive that Frederick Douglass denounces her.

Nor is this a one-time act. Some 20 years later, she is president of a suffrage organization that allows the exclusion of black women.

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