Ken Burns Slams Michael Jordan Documentary: “That’s Not the Way You Do Good Journalism”

     May 1, 2020

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Veteran documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who has directed such acclaimed docuseries as The Civil War and The Vietnam War, has come out and slammed ESPN’s new Michael Jordan docuseries The Last Dance in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, saying “it’s not how you do good journalism.”

Of course, Burns hasn’t watched The Last Dance yet, but that’s only because he fundamentally disagrees with how it was made. The docuseries was produced in association with NBA Entertainment and Jordan’s own production company, Jump 23, so in Burns’ eyes, the integrity of the entire project is compromised.

“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. And that’s not the way you do good journalism…and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business, said Burns, who certainly has a point from my perspective. You can tell there are certain subjects that The Last Dance is either holding back on or avoiding altogether. Whether that was the director’s choice, or Jordan and the NBA’s influence, is anyone’s guess, but it’s safe to assume they flexed their muscles and used their veto power at least once. Otherwise, they simply would’ve given director Jason Hehir final cut, which I can’t imagine he had on this project considering its importance to ESPN.

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Image via ESPN

Burns said that he would “never, never, never, never” agree to a partnership like the one Hehir made with Jordan and the NBA, but what he has to keep in mind is that he’s Ken Burns, and if Hehir had pushed back against the producers of the docuseries, he likely would’ve just been replaced by a filmmaker more willing to get with the program and not rock the boat. Filmmaking is ultimately about compromise, so while Burns may be in the position where he doesn’t have to compromise anymore, Hehir is still making a name for himself, and The Last Dance still strikes me as a remarkable series, even if I don’t view it as an act of journalism like I do ESPN’s O.J. Simpson docuseries Made in America, which felt like a historical document of sorts.

Burns continued dunking on The Last Dance, saying it represents “the opposite direction of where we need to be going” in the world of documentary filmmaking, and quite frankly, I’m inclined to agree. I understand that athletes and rock stars want to be the ones to tell their own stories, but this case is no different than when Queen produces Bohemian Rhapsody or Elton John produces Rocketman. No matter how much they encourage a warts-and-all portrayal, you’re simply never going to get the full story. There’s just too much at stake, and believe me, there’s plenty at stake with regards to The Last Dance, as Jordan’s various clothing companies still rake in hundreds of millions of dollars each year. We’re definitely seeing a glimpse of Jordan’s dark side in The Last Dance, but I promise we won’t see anything too risqué. That may not be the Ken Burns way, but perhaps it’s for the best.

The Last Dance continues to air on Sunday nights on ESPN and its various streaming platforms. Here’s hoping Jordan discusses Space Jam in an upcoming episode, because LeBron James‘ sequel is coming out next summer, and it’s promising a new legacy. Click here for more on that flex, and the new logo for the animated movie.

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