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Huey Long: A documentary by Ken Burns

Huey Long addressing an audience

Huey Long: A documentary by Ken Burns (1985)


Althought Ken Burn's documentary is nearly 30 years old, its relevance is timeless. Eighty years ago this year, Huey Long, a corrupt politician from Louisiana, pushed forward to the American public a program entitled “Share Our Wealth.” His design was to create a new wealth redistribution system that was supposed to limit poverty during the Great Depression. Burn’s documentary “Huey Long” (1985) presented a well researched, sympathetic but disturbing, and at moments funny, account of the rise and fall of the Louisiana politician Huey Long.

From 1928 to his assassination in 1935 Huey Long was nothing short of being a dictator, who endorsed corruption in his home state. During that time he was elected Governor, and later U. S. Senator. His loyal constituents were the poorest people of Louisiana and they loved him, because he played the part of being oppressed as well. He built bridges and highways, and he provided free textbooks to the public schools.

All the good, however, was outweighed by the methods used by Long to keep his promises to the poor. It’s estimated that every $100 million worth of highways cost the taxpayers $150 million. The difference found its way into the pockets of Long and his cronies. Long was able to keep his political machine in power, by armed terror and his manipulation of the laws that suspended the civil liberties of many, and especially those of his enemies.

The presentation by Burn’s was framed around vintage newsreel footage, still photographs, and a series of revealing interviews with historians and journalists, as well as Louisianans who remembered Huey Long fondly. Burns is able to piece the factual narrative together and use the interviews to create a personal connection to the subject which resonates into an emotional and sentimental journey for the film viewer.

Ken Burn’s uses this technique with his documentaries, and it clearly has a way of drawing the viewer into the historical account and creates a moment for the audience that they can share the feeling being expressed. “He was a great man, I think, because he built the roads and he had been poor like us. He would have been president, if they hadn’t killed him.” an old man said. He looked at his wife, who was seated next to him. She nodded with agreement.

The camera is held on them for a few moments and you realize that the couple seems average, sincere, and completely honest with their feelings. This is the point that Burns is trying to get across. History needs to be more than just a written account analyzed by countless academicians. To the older couple Huey Long was a hero. Popular history, according to Burns, has to be understood from the emotional side as well as the academic one.

Just as you begin to slip into believing in Huey Long, Burns jolts you out of that dream. “It was normal conversation on a Saturday night to talk about killing Huey Long”, stated retired journalist Mrs. Hodding Carter. As Long’s rein of Louisiana style fascism continued, factions of supporters as well as detractors developed within the state. Long’s political control suffocated any other ideologies, and was maintained exclusively by well placed members of his political machine. “The Governor-elect is so agreeable that when a leaf blew onto his desk one morning, he signed It.” This anecdote succinctly described Senator Long’s relentless control of those around him.

By presenting a balanced picture through candid interviews and narratives Ken Burns has opened the door for the viewer to decide if Huey Long was such a bad person after all. Yes, he was a crook. The esteemed Pulitzer Prize winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had said so, “ His methods outweighed the good he did" the methods that Schlesinger was referring to were about Long’s involvement with corruption and graft.

Despite Burn’s efforts to provide equal time to both sides of the Huey Long argument the film maker decided to introduce rare film footage of Huey Long, and at his best, and as he charmed an audience. With a gopher grin and a contrived folksiness Long let loose against the “haves” of society, illustrating their greediness with metaphors about backyard barbecues and " the Roosevelt’s, Vanderbilt’s, and J.P. Morgan ‘s walked off with all the food. Burns has now confused his audience, but of course, that was his original intention.

Huey Long comes across as a likeable guy, even a caricature of himself, and when he equivocates about his past problems with indictments and impeachments, it all seems so reasonable, explainable, and laughable. His audience, in the newsreel footage, is also laughing at his comments.

Ken Burns has done a brilliant job in taking the audience to a level that the story of Huey Long is memorable, not just from a contextual point of view but an emotional one as well. Burns documentary confirms the scandalous and sordid facts of Long’s progression to his role as an American Caesar. This, of course, could have been read in a magazine article or history book. Burn’s genius, however, provides the visualization of real people expressing their feelings and creating a moment that the viewer is able to share, feel and absorb into their rationalization of the subject.

Ken Burn’s “Huey Long” reaches deep into the souls of Americans who want to find a connection in history with their own patriotic past. Although misguided, Huey Long based his aspirations of power, on the backs of supposedly helping the oppressed—the poor of Louisiana. Long was so good at it he was able to convince the voters of Louisiana several times that he was sincere.

The audience wants to herald a champion of the poor. Pieces of Ken Burn’s documentary will lead some viewers to applaud Huey Long, and others will have dismissed Long as a crook as soon as Mrs. Hodding Carter called him one. Documentaries encourage debate and more history needs to be expressed in this fashion. Through documentaries and other forms of media expression an opportunity exists to add more value to academic narratives. These visualizations and recorded commentary will help with the overall historical interpretation of the subject.

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