Answering the Question “Who Are We?”

July 17, 2020

In this short video, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns recalls having Robert Penn Warren read a passage from his novel All the King’s Men during the production of the Huey Long portion of his documentary series “Ken Burns’ America.” He notes that it is voices like Warren’s that have helped animate his work, bringing to life his own journey and that which he has tried to share through his films.

For Burns, this particular passage from All the King’s Men—about dirt, creation, and man’s place and purpose on Earth—is a “wonderfully existential statement” that excavates the “emotional archaeology” of humanity. Warren’s writing serves as a compass that can help navigate what Burns calls “the specific gravity of our own self-destructive impulses.” In spite of the diverse range of his film topics, they are all united by a simple question: as Americans, who are we?