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Had Burns produced a wildly controversial new documentary or debuted a provocatively controversial new haircut? Nah. The Baseball and Jazz filmmaker had taken a picture at an event with Clarence Thomas.
The American Buffalo
Airdate: 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 16 and Tuesday, Oct. 17 (PBS)
Director: Ken Burns
The Twitter brouhaha passed so quickly — debate in the realm of Elon Musk has gone from something already ephemeral to barely a fart in the wind — that there wasn’t even an opportunity for Burns’ latest PBS offering to capitalize on the buzz. It’s a pity, because The American Buffalo may have the least inherent sizzle of any Burns project since his pre-Civil Wars days making short films about iconic inanimate objects and the Shakers.
Following the bristling outrage of the tremendous The U.S. and the Holocaust, The American Buffalo approaches a topic of high drama in a somewhat minor key; it’s a complicated documentary of not-too-distant melancholy and not-too-celebratory inspiration. It’s a bit more gripping than its deliberately unsexy title would lead you to fear, but at the same time, The American Buffalo feels less like a standalone story than an excerpt from a much longer, more ambitious documentary that Burns surely knows he shouldn’t be the person to make.
There are absolutely stories worth telling within The American Buffalo, and its points about the costs and consequences of the American Dream are comfortably within Burns’ thematic wheelhouse, all wrapped up in four hours that are half borderline self-parody and half intricately woven tapestry.
The American Buffalo is not some David Attenborough nature film. You’ll learn how tall and wide a buffalo can get, as well as their potential top running speed, but the approach that Burns and frequent writing collaborator Dayton Duncan take is more frequently to view the buffalo in terms of symbolism and their place in the larger American narrative. It’s simultaneously mythologizing more than anthropomorphizing and yet thoroughly granular in its treatment of the bison and their utilitarian value, which extends from their role in the natural ecosystem to their central place in Native mysticism to their worth in terms of food, shelter and attire. At various points, buffalo are treated as majestic and close to divine and delicious. If you’re interested in the animal itself and not the animal as a vehicle to explore national identity, you’ve come to the wrong place.
The first two hours of The American Buffalo are a damning story of near-annihilation: The ideology of Manifest Destiny led settlers across the United States; they sometimes used control over buffalo as a means of exerting control over Indigenous people in the name of dominion and sometimes used control over Indigenous people as a means of exerting control over buffalo in the name of capitalism.
There’s something unsettling about the fact that Burns has chosen to use buffalo as a way to piggyback onto a documentary about Native Americans; the result becomes only a very, very cursory history or sociological study of a very, very limited piece of a story. Of course, in 2023, if Ken Burns had attempted to make a full documentary about Native Americans, somebody would have rightly asked, “Is Ken Burns really the best person to do that?”
It’s notable that while Burns has made some accommodations to let Native voices somewhat steer The American Buffalo, it’s only “some.” At least half of the talking heads are Indigenous, all carefully identified with their tribal affiliations and, without question, delivering the documentary’s most passionate stories.
But while there are Native producers/consultants on The American Buffalo, Burns didn’t take on a new co-director and, more than that, he didn’t attempt to deviate in any meaningful way from his tried-and-true formal methodology. From Peter Coyote’s narration to the trademark slow-pans across still images to Craig Mellish’s editing rhythms, there’s a comfortable conventionality to the first part that isn’t sufficiently shaken up by the musical contributions by Randy Granger. If I told you, “Ken Burns made a documentary about the importance of and decimation of the American buffalo,” the thing you imagine is almost exactly the thing you get here. Even when there are a scattering of new voices — Chaske Spencer! Tantoo Cardinal! — doing the reliable Burns-ian readings of letters, poetry and prose, the instantly recognizable tones of folks like Paul Giamatti and Jeff Daniels stand out.
If the first two hours of The American Buffalo are representative of what Burns does, the second two are representative of what Burns does BEST. After steering us through the conditions that left the plains scattered with buffalo carcasses and left the Native people shoehorned into confining reservations, bound by treaties that were either overtly underhanded or tinged with potential deceit, Burns and Duncan lead us through the path back.
Over the last two hours, Burns presents a dynamic cast of characters, some already iconic and some newly fascinating, who worked to save the buffalo. It was a discordant assortment of agendas, some purely altruistic and some driven by an uncomfortably nationalistic spirit, that laid the foundation for the conservation movement and many of the elements depicted in much more depth in The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. The weaving of these stories, built around several of the people we met in the first part, ranging from “Buffalo” Bill Cody to Theodore Roosevelt to Comanche leader Quanah Parker, is so careful and so good and the connections the doc is able to make between them are so perceptive. My biggest complaint was that the documentary fails to take that next step, directly addressing why the reconsideration of our treatment of the buffalo wasn’t, in any way, accompanied by a reconsideration of our treatment of the Native peoples. Racism. The answer is racism. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t need to be said aloud.
Owing to length and familiarity, The American Buffalo comes across as lesser Ken Burns, especially following the scathing Holocaust documentary. I think that assessment is limiting. The craftsmanship of the second part is top-notch and the takeaways regarding how frequently American pride has gone hand-in-hand with destroying aspects of America that we try to marginalize or deem not-quite-American are always vital.
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