What's Ken Burns' Beef with the Jordan Doc?

Ken Burns has a problem with the journalistic approach to The Last Dance, namely Michael Jordan's conflict of interest. 

If you've been starved for sports, then The Last Dance has scratched that itch. The 10-hour documentary centers on the life and career of Michael Jordan, specifically the 97-98 Bulls and their last season together. 

The footage was shot by a behind the scenes camera crew and has lain dormant for years. 

It was resurrected by producer Michael Tollin and structured into this incredible series. 

The reactions have been universally positive. Director Jason Hehir has delivered one of the most engaging long-form documentaries of all time. 

Every week, my roommates and I gather in front of the television to relive the 1990s and Jordan's greatness. While Michael was worried we wouldn't like him after this doc, it's been hard to not admire his indescribable drive and passion for the game. 

All he cared about was winning, and he put it above everything else. 

Jordan was heavily involved in the doc. Not only is he one of the talking heads but he had a hand in crafting it and getting the final say on what's aired. 

And that's part of the problem for Ken Burns. 

For those of you who don't know, Ken Burns is one of the most famous documentarians of all time. His PBS series on Baseball, The Civil War, and Jazz are widely considered to be among the best journalistic pieces and documentaries of the 21st century. 

But Burns has distinct problems with the journalism of The Last Dance.  

Via Chris Kornelis of The Wall Street Journal, "Mr. Burns has been spending the quarantine walking, writing poetry and working on the seven documentary films he has in production. But he has yet to watch ESPN’s popular Michael Jordan documentary series, The Last Dance. The series counts the basketball great’s production company as a partner, an arrangement Mr. Burns says he would “never, never, never, never” agree to. “I find it the opposite direction of where we need to be going,” he says.

“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,” he says. “And that’s not the way you do good journalism … and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”

Basically, Burns says that if Jordan is as involved in the doc as he says he is, that there can in no way be an impartial look into his career or his impact on the game. That's a valid point, but I don't think it's a reason not to watch. 

Like any documentary, I think the audience is supposed to do their own research and form their point of view. No matter what you make, you always have a particular point-of-view that gets edited into the story. 

It's almost impossible to remain impartial. 

But given the episodes we've seen, I don't think we're getting many negative looks at Michael. We may not love his attitude or willingness to throw people under the bus or call them soft, but so far, Michael is the one throwing the punches in the doc. 

We still have 6 episodes to go, so it's not fair to really make any judgments. 

Most of what we can do is speculate. 

And get on Google to find out more. 

Still, the lesson in all of this is always to check the sources behind the doc. And if you're making one, think about who you want to be beholden to. It's hard to decide between giving access to someone or not having the doc exist. You have to make that hard call. 

This footage has been around for decades and Jordan didn't embrace it being let out for any reason. 

He did embrace this one. 

So, watch with that knowledge in the front of your minds and feel free to do your own research. 

Or just enjoy it.      

Your Comment

10 Comments

Micheal Jordan's control of the documentary isn't surprising to anybody who was aware of how he handled the press back in the 1990s.

May 5, 2020 at 10:10AM

0
Reply
Marc B
Shooter & Editor
1001

The more Michael influences it the better. Anyone can do encyclopedia documentaries taking historical footage and adding a pan effect with some narration. While you don't want subject compromised and this is kind of a valid concern, who better to tell you what MJ is about than MJ? Whatever it took to get made was worth whatever concessions they had to give MJ to keep him happy. Doesn't seem like he has shit to hide.

May 5, 2020 at 11:50AM

1
Reply
Jake
530

As much as we all are enjoying this doc (and it is truly amazing), I think this point should be well taken. Most people watching likely won't research to understand the extent to which it's been editorialized, they are going to "just enjoy it" as this article says. And yet, this is a growing trend of public figures actively producing popular documentaries about them (Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton, Travis Scott to name a few). Imagine how different docs like "Diego Maradona" or "OJ: Made in America" would be with the living subjects' involvement, possibly glancing over or reframing the most uncomfortable parts of their lives. The trend just feels less like documentary and more like effective branding/PR.

May 6, 2020 at 6:00AM

0
Reply
avatar
Brandon Walsh
Indie & Commercial Director
1

Well said

May 6, 2020 at 7:41AM

0
Reply
avatar
Frank Anderson
Filmmaker/Graphic Designer
132

Ken Burns is exactly right. If the subject is involved in or influences the creation of a film about them, it is no longer a documentary. The Taylor Swift film is not a documentary. The Michelle Obama film is not a documentary. Some may be harmless and/or enjoyable to watch, but they are no longer documentaries.

Just think if the (excellent) film about Steve Bannon, "The Brink," was produced by him and only things he approved went into the film. It definitely would not have premiered at Sundance and it would not be a piece of documentary journalism.

We need another category. While "The Last Dance" and "Becoming" may be enjoyable or entertaining, they are an extended PR campaign, not documentaries. And to keep pushing them as such is dangerous and erodes the credibility of true documentary journalism.

May 9, 2020 at 6:15AM

0
Reply
Sheldon
Director, DP
8

If Ken Burns thinks for one second that his structure and edit is THE objective one - wow! Everything produced has a unique voice. I'm thrilled that the voice behind The Last Dance is heavily influenced by Michael Jordan. Maybe Ken's just a bit jealous of the incredible ratings which will go through the roof when available on Netflix. Of course he has the option of creating his own "Objective" documentary of the same subject matter. Not sure who would watch it?

May 12, 2020 at 6:40AM

0
Reply
Mike White
DP
1

All very understandable points and I actually agree with Mr Burns.
BUT—i'm still impressed with the stuff that MJ actually LET ESPN cover. He obviously could've killed any of the gambling stuff or anything that portrays him like an obsessive jerk...and he didn't. He's even quoted as saying, "I probably look like an asshole in this." And he does...AND he was cool with it.

Ken is right, but MJ is obviously a wide-open book.

May 11, 2020 at 7:27AM, Edited May 11, 7:27AM

0
Reply
Kevin
Director
13

I think there is a misunderstanding here. The NBA decided to commission a film crew to film Michael Jordan's, at the time, potential final season. Jordan only agreed to this if he had legal rights to approve/disapprove the usage of any and all of the footage. He owns the rights to the overwhelming amount of footage used in the doc. This doc literally could not be made without him. It is not like Jason Hehir/Michael Tollin has some unique idea for a doc on MJ. They wanted to make this specific doc with this footage, that's the whole point... This footage has been the crown jewell in the eyes of any sports documentarian for years. Tollin was just able to convince Jordan to make the doc as of 2016 (after many others had failed to do so.) I understand Ken Burns point but this doc exists in a different set of circumstances.

May 11, 2020 at 7:26PM

0
Reply

I agree with Ken Burns. We are erasing any lines between entertainment and journalism. Watch it, enjoy it and simply call it what it is: a vanity piece biography.

May 14, 2020 at 9:03AM

0
Reply
avatar
Kippur Kippur
Producer/ Aspiring DP and Director
89

Nobody needs a 10-hr documentary about anyone. It's not a documentary, it's a PR stunt.

May 14, 2020 at 7:33PM, Edited May 14, 7:33PM

2
Reply