Ken Burns’s acclaimed documentaries include The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz and, most recently, an account of World War II titled The War. His work has won Emmys, Grammys and numerous other awards and has been nominated for Academy Awards. He is working on a series on the national parks.
What is your own religious background and identity?
I was born an Episcopalian and was at best a haphazard attendee. I have had a rich spiritual life that has its roots in Christianity, but I have not been afraid to explore. I find myself in the tradition of the founders—what Thomas Jefferson would call a deist, I guess—interested less in the organized forms of religion than in spiritual pursuit as a way toward the perfectibility of an imperfectible species called human beings.
One of your earliest films was about the Shakers. What attracted you to that subject?
A. M. Stroud III, a former prosecutor in Louisiana, expresses regret for the role he played in sending Glenn Ford to death row in 1984. “I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning.” Stroud says he presented dubious evidence from a forensic pathologist, precluded black jurors from the trial (Ford, since exonerated, is black), and ignored the fact that the appointed defense attorney had never before tried a criminal or capital case. “I . . . hope that providence will have more mercy for me than I showed Glenn Ford,” Stroud said in a letter to the editor of the Times of Shreveport. “But, I’m also sobered by the realization that I certainly am not deserving of it” (ABA Journal, March 25).