EXCLUSIVE: Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy Of Detroit, directed by Sam Katz and James McGovern, swept the 2021 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, a three-year-old documentary award that carries a finishing grant of $200,000.
The winning entry explores the decline of the American manufacturing city culminating in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013 and its aftermath.
Directors of runner-up Free Chol Soo Lee, Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, will receive $50,000 for their story of a Korean immigrant wrongly convicted of a Chinatown gang murder in San Francisco in 1973. Four finalists will be awarded $25,000 apiece.
Filmmakers from Ken Burns’ production company Florentine Films and staff from the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center — the Library’s moving image and recorded sound preservation facility – selected the six entries from a flurry of initial submissions of late-stage American history documentaries. That was winnowed to two by a national jury including filmmakers Sam Pollard, Dawn Porter and Sally Rosenthal, along with Edward Ayers, president emeritus of the University of Richmond and Andrew Delbanco, American Studies professor at Columbia University.
Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, in consultation with Burns, selected the winner. It’s the third year of the prize. (“We’ve always been unanimous, otherwise I would defer to her,” Burns told Deadline.)
“Each of the films is an extraordinary work of art,” he said. “I have long believed that our ability to engage around historical topics will help us tackle some of the challenges we are dealing with today.” The winning grants are significant sums and Burns said have helped a number of films cross the finish line. He and his team are available to give the winners notes and advice.
Philanthropists Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine’s Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation provided the bulk of funding, along with the awards organizer, nonprofit The Better Angels Society.
Last year’s top prize went to Stefan Forbes’s Hold Your Fire which examines the untold story behind the longest hostage siege in New York Police Department history. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last month The first winner, in 2019, was Flannery, by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, on iconic Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor that premiered on PBS’ American Masters last March.
Burns called Gradually, Then Suddenly a “complex, nuanced, layered and accomplished tiktok of what’s going on. You get to meet public officials and minor bureaucrats and union people, and it’s trying to figure out how to deal with the crisis. It’s complicated by the politics of Michigan.”
His own work spans decades, launched by Brooklyn Bridge in 1981 and including among many others The Civil War (1990), Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Brown & Susan B. Anthony (1999), Vietnam (2017) and Country Music (2019). Most have their home with longtime partner PBS.
Burns said a topic needs to be at least 15 years distant for him to be able to cover. “We are looking for the kind of perspective that the passage of time provides,” he said.
He lauded the steady popularity of docs over time. “I thought in ‘85 were in the middle of a renaissance. There has never been a dip.” Unlike much Hollywood fare, they’re still not “industrial” but “individualistic.”
The prizes will be formally announced Oct. 26 at 7:00 pm ET in a virtual event with Hayden, Burns, Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble) and PBS NewsHour correspondent/Washington Week moderator Yamiche Alcindor discussing archives, history and storytelling.
The four finalists include:
Bonnie Blue: James Cotton’s Life in the Blues, by Bestor Cram. The story of James Cotton, harmonica powerhouse, whose music shaped blues and rock.
Double Exposure (working title), by Phil Bertelsen, on Ernest Withers, whose camera captured the joys and sorrows of African American life and spread the news of civil rights. His photos also appeared in FBI files, provided by informant ME-338-R.
Exposing Muybridge, by Marc Shaffer: The first feature documentary to tell the story of 19th-century photographer Muybridge, whose ability to capture something moving faster than the human eye can see — Leland Stanford’s galloping horses — was a critical step in the development of cinema.
The Five Demands, by Greta Schiller. In 1969, Black and Puerto Rican students locked the gates of The City College of New York with five demands for increasing diversity and access to education. Fueled by the revolutionary fervor sweeping the nation, their protest turned into a two-week historic takeover that changed the face of higher education.