Latino Group Holds Applause for 'The War' Filmmaker Ken Burns' new documentary The War recently debuted its first episode on PBS. Before its release, Burns was criticized by Latinos who said the film failed to acknowledge Latino contributions to the war. In response, Burns agreed to add new material. Still, some Latinos remain unimpressed. Angelo Falcon, of the National Institute for Latino Policy, and Lionel Sosa, a PBS board member, explain the lingering discontent.

Latino Group Holds Applause for 'The War'

Latino Group Holds Applause for 'The War'

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Filmmaker Ken Burns' new documentary The War recently debuted its first episode on PBS. Before its release, Burns was criticized by Latinos who said the film failed to acknowledge Latino contributions to the war. In response, Burns agreed to add new material. Still, some Latinos remain unimpressed. Angelo Falcon, of the National Institute for Latino Policy, and Lionel Sosa, a PBS board member, explain the lingering discontent.


I'm Michelle Martin, and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, we're going to talk about some of this country's most sensitive issues - abortion and adoption - and how both of these issues intersect with another hot button, that of race.

We're also going to talk to a veteran newsman about his very personal struggle: his battle against alcoholism. That's all later.

But first, we're going to return to a story that we've been covering that has also stirred deep emotion. The new seven-part documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns titled "The War" outraged some Latino activists because they felt the film did not do enough to explore the Latino contributions to the war effort.

After months of pressure and a threatened boycott of sponsors, Burns agreed to add new material showcasing Latino and Native American voices. I talked to him about it last week.

Mr. KEN BURNS (Director, "The War"): From the very beginning, we said that we would produce more content, and then it just became a question of where we would put it. And because we didn't have to compromise the artistic vision of what we'd already produced, it just added immeasurably to the film to rise above it in this way and take the high road.

MARTIN: The film began airing yesterday on most PBS stations, so we thought it was a good time to ask whether some who'd criticized the film if the new material satisfied their concerns.

With us are two people who have been following the issue. Angelo Falcon is president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. He was involved in the Defend the Honor campaign, which was protesting the film. And we're also joined by Lionel Sosa. He is CEO of the grassroots online think-tank Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together. He is also a board member at PBS. Gentlemen, welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Dr. ANGELO FALCON (President, National Institute for Latino Policy): Nice to be here.

Dr. LIONEL SOSA (CEO, Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together Foundation, Inc.): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Angelo Falcon, I'd like to start with you, because you were among the dissatisfied. I just wanted to - briefly, for people who have not followed this, why was it so important to you that Latino voices be highlighted in this film?

Dr. FALCON: Well, I think it was important, not just to me, but probably for the majority of the Latino population to feel that, you know, we're being seen in a positive light as people who contributed somewhat to this country. And with over close to 500,000 Latinos who participated in this war to defend this country, we though it was basically almost immoral to exclude us from, you know, from this series.

MARTIN: And what do you think of the way the issue was resolved? There was new material. I think people who saw the first episode will have seen some of that material. What do you think?

Dr. FALCON: Well, if they saw the first episode, they saw most of that material. We were very dissatisfied. I mean, our feeling was and our concern from the beginning is that we simply wouldn't be tacked on to this series as some sort of political expediency on the part of PBS and Ken Burns. And that's exactly what they did. Unfortunately, it's at the very - it's tacked on to the very end, and even the credits, the Latino producer, Hector Galan, was also tacked on to the very end of the credits.

And one of the things that was, to me, most disheartening was the fact that that section - that Latino section - was actually excellent. And it just illustrated how much of a lost opportunity, I think, Ken Burns and PBS had by not seriously including Latinos in the series.

MARTIN: Lionel Sosa, what do you think of how this controversy was resolved? And I'd also like to know what kind of feedback you're getting at PBS.

Dr. SOSA: Yeah, well, first, I do want to applaud all of the work that Defend the Honor has done. You know, they're an informed, concerned, professional group. And they - I think they did the right thing by bringing attention to this issue because, you know, in many cases, the Latino has been forgotten. The Latino contribution to this country has been forgotten.

But having said that, I also defend Ken Burns as a filmmaker, as a creative person. He produced a film. PBS decided to run that film. And for any group to say, you know what, I don't like it. I was left out. You must change it. While that may be a very, very fair request to make, it doesn't mean that they have to do it.

You might remember not very long ago, some people protested a television special where James Brolin, I think, was going to be playing the role of Ronald Reagan. And many people did not like it, and there was a huge protest. And the network decided not to run that. And that was a decision they made, not to run that special.

Well, here, another decision was made. And I think that was the right decision as well, but I do defend Ken Burns' ability and his right as a filmmaker to put on the air his product. And I defend the right of a group to protest it.

MARTIN: Angelo Falcon, let's talk about that. I mean, you and I have spoken about this on this program before. And there are those who would argue that you're imposing sort of current, political pressures on a past situation because you've pointed out that part of the reason that this is such a deeply felt issue - not just for you, as you've pointed out, but for so many people -is that there's a feeling that Latinos now are viewed only in a negative light in the public sphere. And this is a way to highlight their contributions to democracy.

But there are those - and think Ken Burns would say, you know, I had a vision for this film. I told this story through the eyes of the people who lived in four towns. It so happened that the demographics of those four towns did not include many of these voices, and that you're now - it's that - you're using current political issues to inform an historical film. How would you respond to that?

Dr. FALCON: Well, Latinos are part of the history of this country. So, you know, that's not a very good argument. But I think, generally, the issue is that what we've been looking at and as we discuss this and we look at Ken Burns and PBS's reactions to our - what we were telling them to do is, number one, we were never involved in any kind of censorship because what we were talking wasn't about - it was inclusion, not his point of view, not, you know, who was going to be in it as much as telling them to take anybody out or anything out. So I think the censorship issue is - and artistic independence issues is really not - is besides the point. The question is that, you know, PBS - this is public monies for the large part. We're talking about, you know, inclusion, whereas Ken Burns was really representing exclusion.

He also misrepresented the film in the sense that at the beginning, when we started raising this issue, he said, I didn't focus on particular ethnic groups or racial groups. In fact, I think he does a fairly good job looking at the African-American experience and the Japanese experience of World War II.

MARTIN: In part - but that's a good point, but in part because the Japanese were interned, but Latinos certainly were not. And African-Americans were herded into segregated units and given the most, you know, given, you know, given very specific jobs.

Dr. FALCON: Right.

MARTIN: The Latinos did not have that experience. They were not segregated during - in the services.

Dr. FALCON: Well, yeah, not in the same way. But we certainly were, in many ways, segregated, many ways had so many problems also as Latinos within the war effort. At the same time, something's missing as well. And that is the notion, right, that what we're talking about is we're talking about groups that have a history of discrimination in this country. Some people say, oh, I didn't, you know, you have the Germans coming in, you can have, you know, push for other ethnic groups. But the fact is that there's a history of racial discrimination in this country, and there's a reason why we have civil rights laws that basically pinpoint Latinos, African-American and Asians as groups that need to be protected.

And so there's - that seems to be missing in that we're not just talking about some sort of broad kind of diversity, but we're also talking about people who served in this war, and when they came back to this country, having served this country, they were discriminated against in this country - couldn't use the bathrooms, couldn't use - and that part of the history is missing. And we think all that Ken Burns was doing was reinforcing that time when Latinos were being attacked in terms of this horrible immigration that they (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Hold in. Let's let Lionel Sosa have a word, here. Lionel Sosa, what about those points that Angelo Falcon is making, that…

Dr. SOSA: Well…

MARTIN: …that, you know, whether you like it or not, that at a time when this particular group is so - feels it ought to be so under-attacked that perhaps there's a special responsibility on the part of such a prominent filmmaker like Ken Burns and a public - a quasi-public entity like PBS to be aware of a group that is of such significance. What about that argument?

Mr. SOSA: Well, they certainly are aware now. PBS is aware and Ken Burns is aware, and I think that any future work by Ken is certainly going to be more inclusive. I think he's always - obviously, he's not a racist. You know, he's had, you know, wonderful works that have included African-Americans and, you know, whether it's "The Civil War" or "Unforgivable Blackness." But maybe he has a bit of a blind spot, and all of us have our own blind spot.

MARTIN: But I think what Angelo's question is does PBS have a blind spot…

Mr. SOSA: Well, I…

MARTIN: …in not having raised these concerns with them sooner as a sponsoring entity?

Mr. SOSA: …I think it is a wakeup call for PBS. I think it is a wakeup call for Ken Burns. I think this is a good thing, because a lot of good things are going to be happening because of this controversy. That doesn't mean that Ken must change his product and - or be forced to change his product by any group that doesn't like his product. If I were a painter of Western art and I had a lot of paintings up in a museum or in an art show and I show the American cowboy and I didn't show the Mexican vaquero, which was the original American cowboy, a group couldn't force me to repaint that painting.

I paint my painting according to the way that I want to paint it. And if anybody wants to paint a vaquero, then they have the right to do that. And I think that this is a lovely opportunity for more Latinos to be able to come forth and tell the Latino story. Is it the responsibility of Ken Burns to tell the Latino story?

MARTIN: Angelo Falcon, want to…

Mr. SOSA: Maybe, maybe not.

MARTIN: Angelo Falcon, what about that question? Hector Galan has had 40 hours of films, is a very distinguished filmmaker in his own right. Forty hours of films on PBS. Why do Ken Burns have to tell this story? Why can't Hector Galan or some other filmmaker tell these stories?

Dr. FALCON: Well, you know, Ken Burns is iconic. I mean, Ken Burns, when he comes out with these films, the definitive story of that particular subject matter, that's why we focus on that. At the same time, there are Latinos who have been producing their own work, just haven't been able to get the access. We hope that all of these protests allowed more Latino programming to come out of PBS because of the pressure they had. But there was already a lot of things in the works, and we hope they'll be more coming out of this. So, you know, that's part of it. The other thing is that, boy, this is a real rough way to be included, to have to organize, to deal with a public - basically, this is a quality of public entity.

Even when we got - we received - we got a copy of the proposal Ken Burns had submitted and got funded to the National Endowment for the Humanities, a government agency. And it's clear that he didn't mean Latinos. He mentioned African-Americans. He mentioned Japanese-Americans. He mentioned other groups, but didn't mention Latinos. So to talk about a blind spot, and the question for Latinos and the Ken Burns story here is it may be emblematic, or it may be a broader issue, and that is when does a blind spot become racism?

MARTIN: Well, I guess the question, though, if I might - and we only have, literally, 30 seconds left for you, Mr. Falcon - is that, as a professor yourself, and many of the people who were most interested in this question were also academics. Do you have, whether you agree with this or not, do you have any concern that political pressures then can be brought to bare on your work? What if someone decides that they don't think that you've done enough to study the Afro-Latino experience? Are you at all concerned that even though you didn't like the film, that you've started a precedent that may then have negative consequences for other people's work?

Dr. FALCON: We could - we follow a tradition in this country of pressure, of trying to get people to change something that's wrong…


Dr. FALCON: …and that's our perspective.

MARTIN: All right. Angelo Falcon, I'm sorry I got to cut you off. I apologize, but thank you for your perspective. Angelo Falcon is president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, a national advocacy group based in Europe. He joined us from our New York bureau.

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