Ken Burns Documentaries

DVD Review – Thomas Jefferson: A Film by Ken Burns – Learn a Great Deal About This “Founding Father”

Thomas Jefferson is one of the enigmas of history. There is no doubt he was a great statesman but was a man of so many contradictions that history has a hard time knowing what to make of him. Twice elected President, he didn’t think that achievement was notable enough to be put on his gravestone. Committed to the idea of a smaller government, he more than doubled the size of the country. While at the same time writing that “all men are created equal…” he owned more than 200 slaves.

At the age of fourteen, his father died suddenly and Jefferson was left to fend for himself. At the age of fifteen, he was sent away to school. It was here while studying under a shady tree that he made his vow to build a great house on his father’s land overlooking the town of Charlottesville.

When his father-in-law died and left him land (plus 135 more slaves) Jefferson sold the land but kept the slaves, including the woman who was said to be his late father-in-law’s mistress, Betty Hemmings, and the two children she had borne him, James and Sally. He had become the second-largest slave-holder in the county.

As the British ratcheted up their demand for money from the colonies, Jefferson’s political star was rising too as he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was becoming a rebel as he aligned himself with those who were decrying the imposition of taxes by the British Parliament so far across the ocean. He was later a delegate to the Continental Congress.

Jefferson wasn’t a great orator and found himself more comfortable crafting his arguments in private. While he was away in Philadelphia, his wife was by herself and was too grief-stricken after the loss of their 17-month-old daughter to write him and tell him.

When Jefferson was appointed the diplomat to France for the United States, he spent a few years there with his daughter Patsy. Finally, he could no longer stand being separated from his final surviving child and sent for Polly. With her came a fourteen-year-old slave girl, Sally Hemmings.

Jefferson was responsible for a great deal of the separation of church and state long before the Constitution was written. He wrote legislation that prevented his home state of Virginia from taxing residents to support “the official church” as was common practice in all of the colonies at the time. James Madison became the biggest proponent of the legislation and helped assure its passage ten years later.

To vote for Jefferson is no less than a rebellion against God… Rev. William Lynne

The election of 1800 pitted Jefferson mainly against Alexander Hamilton in a brutal election. It was a dirty one too, something many people would be surprised to learn as both sides used a variety of tricks as well as paying off various newspaper editors to say things about their opponents. The election ended in a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr and it was only the fact that Hamilton detested Burr so much that prodded him to persuade his fellow Federalists to put Jefferson in the White House and break the Congressional deadlock.

Narrated by Ossie Davis, the documentary also features the voices of Blythe Danner, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Sam Waterston. Not much time is really spent on his childhood or his life prior to his becoming a Founding Father. I couldn’t be sure if this was an editing choice due to the amount of material to be covered following his public rise to fame, or if there was just so little known about his early life. His personality is often described as “thin-skinned” and he really didn’t have the temperament for politics – a far cry from the shrewd, calculating politician that was depicted in my history classes.

The music is great, as has been the case with all of the Ken Burns documentaries I have viewed. At times it’s the soft notes of a piano softly plinking away My Country Tis of Thee… while the camera lovingly pans the Declaration of Independence. Other times the mood is set by the haunting sound of a violin during particularly sad times, such as at the death of Jefferson’s wife.

Ken Burns’ biography of Thomas Jefferson uses no movies or still photographs of the subject. To tell the story, Burns uses paintings and drawings of the people to tell the story. The camera zooms in or out on the painting or pans across it as the narration is read. Still pictures and film have been taken in the modern day of the locales Jefferson resided, including Monticello, Paris, Philadelphia, and Washington. Commentary by a wide variety of notable historians of both races is used to try and unravel the enigma that Jefferson presented.

This is quite a fascinating documentary on one of the founding fathers. In particular, I thought his views on religious freedom were interesting in light of the current political climate where people try to paint the founding fathers as Christian. After Jefferson’s death, Monticello was purchased by a Jewish family determined to keep it up in gratitude for the religious freedom he fought for.

Although at times it feels a bit long, the documentary is well worth watching. I actually did fall asleep during the second part and had to watch it again (although this may be due to the crazy hours I’ve been working with our business lately and actually being able to have an afternoon to myself). If you’re not a history buff and your interests tend to shoot-em-up action-packed films, you probably will end up bored. I found it very interesting and those who enjoy shows on Biography or National Geographic will probably enjoy it as well.

Special Features:

Ken Burns: Making History – not specific to Thomas Jefferson, it’s a featurette about how Ken Burns makes the documentaries he does
A Conversation with Ken Burns – an interview with Ken Burns about how he creates the documentaries and what inspires him

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