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Ken Burns
Jim Cole  /  AP
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns was criticized for overlooking the role of Hispanic soldiers in his new World War II documentary, "The War," and went back to add additional footage.
By Entertainment writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/21/2007 11:46:42 AM ET 2007-09-21T15:46:42

Last spring, several major Latino organizations, along with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, declared war on Ken Burns’ 15-hour interpretation of World War II.

The groups were offended because “The War,” a seven-part series that begins airing on PBS on Sept. 23 (check local listings), apparently had excluded the Latino experience from what is truly a riveting and compelling documentary on the war that forever changed the world.

Letters were sent, meetings were held and the next thing you knew, the acclaimed documentarian was back in the editing room adding 28 minutes of footage. The new additions included not only two Latino WWII veterans, but a Native American who served as well.

It appears that once again an artist has had to reshape his vision so that his work would or could appear to be more socially responsible.

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But even after Burns “took the high road” and caved, some folks still weren’t happy.

“By giving us two names in there, it's really kind of like white-washing,” said Jess Quintero, president of the Hispanic War Veterans of America and a member of the Defend the Honor (DOH) organization protesting the Burns documentary. “This documentary is just a mockery. Either give us something of substance or don’t give us anything at all. Just because he gave us two doesn’t mean it’s over with — not by a long shot.”

Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, director of the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project and co-chair of the DOH group, has done extensive research into the Latino contributions in WWII and is concerned that the added stories aren’t fully flushed out. When you compare them to the more extensive segments featuring white, African-American and Japanese-American veterans, she’s right.

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“He gave us two, which is good, but are we really understanding what those lives are all about?” Rivas-Rodriguez said. “Are we gaining an understanding of the culture and the experience of Latinos? Not with just one or two. This will have long-term ramifications for all of us. If the contributions of Latinos to this country are not appreciated and not acknowledged, we’re going to have yet one more generation who has no knowledge about who we are and what we’ve done here.”

Inclusiveness important, but don't blame Burns
Rivas-Rodriguez makes some valid points. Let's face it, outside of music and baseball, Latino contributions in the United States have been largely ignored. They’ve been here as long as the Native Americans, yet the government is now trying to keep them from crossing the border. As a member of a race that has been oppressed and maligned since we arrived on these shores, I understand her concerns about exclusiveness.

It has to stop.

But should Burns or PBS be chastised simply because there weren’t enough Latino war stories in a film that wasn’t set up to explore the contributions of veterans based on their ethnicity? Yes, if the exclusion was by design. But if that wasn’t the case—and I don’t believe it was—the added footage really adds nothing creatively or socially.

It’s just there to appease.

According to Burns, however,  he can’t really be blamed for the dearth of Latinos in “The War.” Video: The greatest generation (on this page)

“Not a single Hispanic came forward out of hundreds and hundreds of people that contacted us,” Burns said emphatically. “We weren’t looking for specific ethnic groups, we were looking for universal experiences in combat. It just happened that other groups came forward.”

They aren’t there because they didn’t heed the call in Waterbury, Conn., Luverne, Minn., Mobile, Ala. and Sacramento, Calif., where Burns ran ads inviting WWII vets to tell him their stories. Conversely, if Burns had gone to New York City, Los Angeles, Miami or San Antonio — cities with large Latino communities — the complexion of the final product might have changed significantly.

That’s a big “if,” however. I spoke with a couple of veterans and they didn’t seem overly concerned about the exclusion. One of them wasn’t going to watch the series because he’d be traveling; and the other just wanted to revisit that period in this life. It didn’t really matter whose eyes he’d be looking through.

Burns goes on to explain that Latinos aren’t the only folks missing from the original cut. There aren’t any German-Americans, female war veterans, merchant marines or submariners in the mix either.

I would have welcomed those voices to the mix — particularly the German-American perspective. But, it’s not my party.

“We don’t cover many, many battles and other groups that were much larger than the 1.4 percent Hispanic population,” he said with a hint of disdain in his voice.

Burns has a right to be a little defensive. He’s being convicted by a group of people who hadn’t, at the time of my interviews, even seen “The War” or read the companion book authored by Burns and published by Knopf.

“The story of my entire professional life has been telling stories that haven’t been told in American history,” Burns told me during a telephone interview. “In the history of (earlier Burns' documentary) ‘The West’, instead of telling gunslinger stories, we told a Hispanic story in every single episode. And you know what the complaint was? ‘No Anglo can tell our story.’ I’ve been a longtime champion of including everyone. These complaints (are) made not by constituencies, but by a few radicals who haven’t even seen the film. And in the United States, we don’t have censorship. People are allowed to put in or leave out whatever they want.”

He’s right. Rivas-Rodriguez concurred that Burns should be able to present his vision in whatever way he sees fit. “I think artists should have every right to produce what they want to produce whether it’s something that’s very politically avant-garde or whatever,” she said. “The point is, though, that whoever is going to air it or publish it, they have every right to make sure that the product that is going on the air meets certain guidelines.”

Inclusiveness is key.

PBS president Paula Kerger, who has stood by Burns throughout the backlash, did meet with Rivas-Rodriguez to discuss DOH’s concerns. In an effort, perhaps, to appease the group, Kerger suddenly found room in her programming schedule this month to air a whole slew of programs celebrating the contributions of Latinos in what just happens to be Latino Heritage Month.

Rivas-Rodriguez appreciates the gesture, but thinks Latino-themed programming should be a part of the network’s overall plans — not just something that pops up during a couple of weeks in September. Her hope now is that viewers would look at “The War” with a critical eye and see if the film adequately represents the experience of Latinos.

“For me, what would make me really happy is a documentary that really and truly celebrates America’s diversity,” she said. “One that (doesn't) just (look) seriously at the contributions of Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, African-Americans, but (at) Filipinos, women in uniform, Latinos. We’re really disturbed that this program and this book will be in schools and libraries as a definitive source of information about this period in history — and we’re missing.”

WWII lasted nearly four years. The war of inclusion is an ongoing battle.

Miki Turner is an entertainment columnist for MSNBC.com. She welcomes your comments at mikiturner.msnbc@gmail.com

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