A few weeks in the past, Ken Burns was trending on social media, an uncommon place for the titan of PBS historic chronicles.
Had Burns produced a wildly controversial new documentary or debuted a provocatively controversial new haircut? Nah. The Baseball and Jazz filmmaker had taken an image at an occasion with Clarence Thomas.
The American Buffalo
The Backside Line
Not one of the best Burns, however the second half is top-notch.
The Twitter brouhaha handed so shortly — debate within the realm of Elon Musk has gone from one thing already ephemeral to barely a fart within the wind — that there wasn’t even a chance for Burns’ newest PBS providing to capitalize on the thrill. It’s a pity, as a result of The American Buffalo might have the least inherent sizzle of any Burns mission since his pre-Civil Wars days making brief movies about iconic inanimate objects and the Shakers.
Following the bristling outrage of the super The U.S. and the Holocaust, The American Buffalo approaches a subject of excessive drama in a considerably minor key; it’s an advanced documentary of not-too-distant melancholy and not-too-celebratory inspiration. It’s a bit extra gripping than its intentionally unsexy title would lead you to worry, however on the identical time, The American Buffalo feels much less like a standalone story than an excerpt from a for much longer, extra formidable documentary that Burns certainly is aware of he shouldn’t be the individual to make.
There are completely tales price telling inside The American Buffalo, and its factors concerning the prices and penalties of the American Dream are comfortably inside Burns’ thematic wheelhouse, all wrapped up in 4 hours which might be half borderline self-parody and half intricately woven tapestry.
The American Buffalo will not be some David Attenborough nature movie. You’ll learn the way tall and large a buffalo can get, in addition to their potential high working pace, however the strategy that Burns and frequent writing collaborator Dayton Duncan take is extra regularly to view the buffalo by way of symbolism and their place within the bigger American narrative. It’s concurrently mythologizing greater than anthropomorphizing and but completely granular in its therapy of the bison and their utilitarian worth, which extends from their position within the pure ecosystem to their central place in Native mysticism to their price by way of meals, shelter and apparel. At numerous factors, buffalo are handled as majestic and near divine and scrumptious. Should you’re within the animal itself and never the animal as a car to discover nationwide identification, you’ve come to the improper place.
The primary two hours of The American Buffalo are a damning story of near-annihilation: The ideology of Manifest Future led settlers throughout the USA; they often used management over buffalo as a way of exerting management over Indigenous individuals within the title of dominion and typically used management over Indigenous individuals as a way of exerting management over buffalo within the title of capitalism.
There’s one thing unsettling about the truth that Burns has chosen to make use of buffalo as a technique to piggyback onto a documentary about Native People; the consequence turns into solely a really, very cursory historical past or sociological research of a really, very restricted piece of a narrative. After all, in 2023, if Ken Burns had tried to make a full documentary about Native People, any person would have rightly requested, “Is Ken Burns actually one of the best individual to try this?”
It’s notable that whereas Burns has made some lodging to let Native voices considerably steer The American Buffalo, it’s solely “some.” No less than half of the speaking heads are Indigenous, all rigorously recognized with their tribal affiliations and, with out query, delivering the documentary’s most passionate tales.
However whereas there are Native producers/consultants on The American Buffalo, Burns didn’t tackle a brand new co-director and, greater than that, he didn’t try to deviate in any significant manner from his tried-and-true formal methodology. From Peter Coyote’s narration to the trademark slow-pans throughout nonetheless photographs to Craig Mellish’s modifying rhythms, there’s a cushty conventionality to the primary half that isn’t sufficiently shaken up by the musical contributions by Randy Granger. If I informed you, “Ken Burns made a documentary concerning the significance of and decimation of the American buffalo,” the factor you think about is sort of precisely the factor you get right here. Even when there are a scattering of recent voices — Chaske Spencer! Tantoo Cardinal! — doing the dependable Burns-ian readings of letters, poetry and prose, the immediately recognizable tones of oldsters like Paul Giamatti and Jeff Daniels stand out.
If the primary two hours of The American Buffalo are consultant of what Burns does, the second two are consultant of what Burns does BEST. After steering us by means of the situations that left the plains scattered with buffalo carcasses and left the Native individuals shoehorned into confining reservations, certain by treaties that had been both overtly underhanded or tinged with potential deceit, Burns and Duncan lead us by means of the trail again.
Over the past two hours, Burns presents a dynamic solid of characters, some already iconic and a few newly fascinating, who labored to avoid wasting the buffalo. It was a discordant assortment of agendas, some purely altruistic and a few pushed by an uncomfortably nationalistic spirit, that laid the muse for the conservation motion and most of the components depicted in way more depth in The Nationwide Parks: America’s Greatest Concept and The Roosevelts: An Intimate Historical past. The weaving of those tales, constructed round a number of of the individuals we met within the first half, starting from “Buffalo” Invoice Cody to Theodore Roosevelt to Comanche chief Quanah Parker, is so cautious and so good and the connections the doc is ready to make between them are so perceptive. My largest criticism was that the documentary fails to take that subsequent step, straight addressing why the reconsideration of our therapy of the buffalo wasn’t, in any manner, accompanied by a reconsideration of our therapy of the Native peoples. Racism. The reply is racism. However that doesn’t imply it didn’t must be mentioned aloud.
Owing to size and familiarity, The American Buffalo comes throughout as lesser Ken Burns, particularly following the scathing Holocaust documentary. I believe that evaluation is limiting. The craftsmanship of the second half is top-notch and the takeaways relating to how regularly American satisfaction has gone hand-in-hand with destroying elements of America that we attempt to marginalize or deem not-quite-American are at all times very important.