Filmmaker Ken Burns to deliver Washington University’s Commencement address May 15

Ken Burns will address the Class of 2015 at Washington University’s 154th Commencement ceremony May 15. (Credit: Photo by Cable Risdon)

Ken Burns, director and producer of some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, has been selected to give the 2015 Commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis, according to Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.

Wrighton made the announcement to the Class of 2015 during the annual senior class toast Thursday, April 2, in the Danforth University Center.

The university’s 154th Commencement ceremony will begin at 8:30 a.m. Friday, May 15, in Brookings Quadrangle on the Danforth Campus.

During the ceremony, Burns will receive an honorary doctor of humanities degree from the university.

He will address approximately 2,800 members of the Class of 2015 and their friends and family members.

This will be his third time speaking at Washington University. In December 2000, he screened his then soon-to-be released documentary on the history of jazz. In November 2012, he delivered an Assembly Series talk, following a ceremony in which Wrighton presented him with the university’s International Humanities Medal.

“Ken Burns is one of America’s great storytellers and documentary filmmakers, and Washington University is honored that he will be addressing the members of this year’s graduating class and their families and friends,” Wrighton said. “He has helped all who have viewed his groundbreaking films to understand the breadth and depth of American history.

“His approach to filmmaking is a wonderful reminder that there are a diversity of ways to tell an important story and many different viewpoints from which to view and tell it,” Wrighton said. “I have great confidence that he will inspire our graduates as they begin to create their own stories of significance and achievement.”

Referred to as “the most accomplished documentary filmmaker of his generation” by The New York Times, Burns has explored such compelling topics in American history as the Civil War, the Dust Bowl, Prohibition and World War II.

In his most recent documentary, he takes on the complex topic of cancer. “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” is a six-hour, three-part series that covers cancer’s first documented appearance thousands of years ago in an ancient Egyptian scroll through today’s battles to cure, control and conquer it. The documentary premiered on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in March 2015.

Burns’ personal experience with cancer — losing his mother to breast cancer at the age of 11 — is one of the reasons he is a filmmaker today.

“From the age of three, I watched her suffer and struggle with this awful disease, forever creating for me a desire to explore the past and to listen deeply to the stories that we all have to tell, in a way, waking the dead,” Burns said.

“Burns is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period,” said David Zurawik, PhD, television critic of The Baltimore Sun, in 2009. “That includes feature filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I say that because Burns not only turned millions of persons onto history with his films, he showed us a new way of looking at our collective past and ourselves.”

The ‘Ken Burns effect’

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Burns earned a bachelor’s degree in film studies and design from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., in 1975. At the age of 22, he co-founded his production company, Florentine Films, and has been making documentary films ever since.

Burns’ films are made for and are aired on PBS and incorporate a filmmaking technique credited to him. The technique involves slowly panning from one subject to another or zooming in or out over still photographs, as if making history come alive. It is known as the “Ken Burns effect.”

His documentaries are also known for the use of archival film footage, period music, first-person narration and authentic sound effects. Among his most widely known films are three epic documentaries: “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz.”

“The Civil War,” for which he was the director, producer, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director and executive producer, was the highest rated series in the history of American public television and attracted an audience of 40 million during its premiere in September 1990.

The series received more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards and two Grammy Awards.

“Baseball,” which is more than 18 hours long and took four-and-a-half years to make, became the most watched series in PBS history, attracting more than 45 million viewers when it first aired in September 1994.

“Jazz,” broadcast on PBS in January 2001, is a 19-hour, 10-part film that explores in detail the culture, politics and dreams that gave birth to jazz music, and follows the American art form from its origins in blues and ragtime through swing, bebop and fusion.

‘A privilege to work with him’

American culture critic Gerald Early, PhD, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has collaborated with Burns on five of his films, including “Baseball” and “Jazz.”

Early also served as a consultant on “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”; “The War”; and “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” appearing in the documentaries on baseball, jazz and Jack Johnson as an on-air analyst.

“Burns has made some of the most extraordinary documentaries ever, intellectually rich yet lyrical and even poetic,” Early said. “No one has defined the United States in film with such depth of texture or with such sweeping grace. His America is both epic and intimate, stark yet mythical. It has been a privilege to work with him.”

Among his many other honors, Burns has received more than 25 honorary degrees and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award.

His projects currently in production include films on Jackie Robinson, the Vietnam War, the history of country music, Ernest Hemingway and the history of stand-up comedy.

He lives in Walpole, N.H., with his wife, Julie. He has four daughters and two grandchildren.