Six documentary films remain in the running for the third annual Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, the richest award in nonfiction filmmaking.
The Better Angels Society, “a non-profit dedicated to the exploration of American history through documentary film,” announced the six finalists Tuesday [full list below]. The winning filmmaker, to be revealed at an October 26 virtual ceremony, will receive a $200,000 grant “to finish the in-production film and to help with outreach and marketing.” Per the organization, the runner-up will receive a $50,000 grant, and up to four finalists will each receive a $25,000 grant.
“In spite of the pandemic which heavily impacted the arts and entertainment industry, a wide array of late-stage professional American history documentary films were submitted for consideration this year,” The Better Angels Society noted in a statement. “An internal committee consisting of filmmakers from Florentine Films [Ken Burns’ company] and expert staff from the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, the Library [of Congress]’s state-of-the-art moving image and recorded sound preservation facility, reviewed the submissions.”
A national jury that included filmmakers Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI) and Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble) chose the six finalists from among the submissions. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and Burns will select the winner. The top award, runner-up and finalists grants go to “feature-length U.S. historical documentaries in the tradition of Ken Burns,” according to The Better Angels Society.
A press release announcing the finalists elaborated on the selection criteria: “Established in 2019, the annual award recognizes filmmakers whose documentaries use original research and compelling narrative to tell stories that touch on some aspect of American history.”
The story of James Cotton, harmonica powerhouse, whose music shaped blues and rock. Orphaned at 9, Cotton’s life tracks America’s history — from the post-depression cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to being mentored by the original Delta bluesmen, to Chicagoland’s artistic reinvention to the live music scene in Austin, Texas.
DOUBLE EXPOSURE (working title), Directed by Phil Bertelsen
Ernest Withers’ camera captured the joys and sorrows of African American life and spread the news of civil rights. His photos also appeared in FBI files, provided by informant ME-338-R: Ernest Withers. Double Exposure (working title) unravels Withers’ mystery and motives, raising questions about loyalty, power, and patriotism in very troubled times.
THE FIVE DEMANDS, Directed by Greta Schiller
In 1969, Black and Puerto Rican students locked the gates of The City College of New York with five demands for increasing diversity and access to education. Fueled by the revolutionary fervor sweeping the nation, their protest turned into a two-week historic takeover that changed the face of higher education.
FREE CHOL SOO LEE, Directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi
After a Korean immigrant is wrongly convicted of a 1973 San Francisco Chinatown gang murder, Asian Americans unite as never before to free Chol Soo Lee. A former street hustler becomes the symbol for a landmark movement. But once out, he self-destructs, threatening the movement’s legacy and the man himself.
SUDDENLY, THEN GRADUALLY: THE BANKRUPTCY OF DETROIT, Directed by Sam Katz and James McGovern
Once heralded as the spirit of American manufacturing, music and democracy, Detroit kicked its fiscal can down the road plummeting into insolvency, culminating in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013. Gradually, Then Suddenly is the riveting story of this great American city’s journey through disaster to possibility.
The documentary Hold Your Fire, directed by Stefan Forbes, won the prize last year; the inaugural prize in 2019 went to Flannery, a documentary about writer Flannery O’Connor, directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco.
The prize is funded by philanthropists Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine through their Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation, and their nonprofit, The Better Angels Society.