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Historical Documentaries are the Key to Understanding Our Common History as Americans

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Elizabeth Coffman, director of “Flannery,” accepts the 2019 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film from from Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and filmmaker Ken Burns. Photo: Shawn Miller.

This is a guest post by Courtney Chapin, Executive Director of The Better Angels Society.

Looking together at our common history is a way for Americans to see one another, to celebrate what makes us similar and what makes us different. The turbulence of the present moment is a wake up call for us to reflect deeply on how we arrived here, and the medium of film makes that history accessible to as many as possible – providing a hearth around which we can gather to consider the ideas and events that bind us together across time.

There’s never been a greater need for historical documentaries. They are essential to examining our past, understanding ourselves, and building a national discourse on what defines us as Americans. They have the power to educate, inform, and provoke thoughtful discussion with friends and family, making us wiser and our democracy stronger.  That’s why The Better Angels Society, the Library of Congress and the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation established the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film in 2019.

The Prize annually recognizes a history documentary in the late stages of completion that uses original research and compelling narrative to tell stories that bring American history to life using archival materials. Our goal when establishing the prize was to lift up the abundance of talent in documentary filmmaking, which might not otherwise have a path to sharing their work more widely. The winner receives a $200,000 finishing grant to help with the final production and distribution of the film. In addition, one runner-up receives a grant of $50,000 and three to four finalists each receive $25,000. These funds are used for finishing, marketing, distribution and outreach.

Last year’s winner, “Gradually, then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy of Detroit” (directed by Sam Katz and James McGovern), paints a vivid picture of city once heralded as the spirit of American manufacturing, music, and democracy. But Detroit kicked its fiscal can down the road for decades, eventually plummeting into insolvency and culminating in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The film tells the inside story of how a state-appointed Emergency Manager and the people of Detroit confronted financial ruin and navigated a treacherous path towards a new beginning.

Other films have focused on lesser known stories. A 2021 finalist, “The Five Demands” (directed by Greta Schiller), paints the picture of the 1969 student strike at the City College of New York. Although waves of student activism took place in the late ’60s, most stories widely known today revolve around white, middle- to upper-class students. Yet, Black and Puerto Rican students led a little-known national Black student movement that transformed the culture, mission and curriculum of higher education. And 2020 finalist “Punch 9 for Harold Washington” (directed by Joe Winston) told the story of Chicago’s first African-American mayor, who paved the way for many future political leaders–including former President Barack Obama.

Since we established the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, we’ve experienced countless events that have united and divided us – a pandemic, a presidential election, global conflict, cultural shifts and environmental flux. In times like these, we are committed to bringing philanthropy to American history documentaries so that Americans have quality history stories to turn to in order to gain a clearer perspective on the present. Submissions for this year’s prize are open, and we encourage documentary filmmakers to share their work and help us understand the past and provide greater depth to the present. To learn more about submission guidelines and deadlines, visit The Better Angels website.


  1. I would do something for black historians.

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