Film & TV

Visual Storytelling: Unforgivable Blackness Case Study

Ken Burns

Lesson time 10:23 min

Using imagery from his film Unforgivable Blackness, Ken demonstrates how to artfully juxtapose photographs and interweave film to craft a compelling storyline.

Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
The 15-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.
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This is a handful of pictures from a film we made on Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion called "Unforgettable Blackness, the Rise and Fall Of Jack Johnson." We peppered the available footage, which which we were lucky to have, with these still images in a way that I think is pretty compelling. Normally, I'd be sitting with the editor at the editing machine going through a bin, a sort of digital bin of all the available photographs from the Jefferies fight. And it might be divided into pre-fight preparation, post-fight reaction and then all of these fight footages. But for this purpose, to put out some of the more compelling images and talk about the way we do it-- this can give you a little bit of a sense of how we were integrating still photographs into an event that took place on July 4, 1910 in which there's tons of footage. Boxing was the pay per view of that day as it is in our day now. So we had the luxury of having almost every part of the fight covered by footage, which was terrific. But again, keeping with our idea of the power of a single image to convey the most complex information and to arrest that information and permit us to do a deep dive, you can see the kind of range of things we can do to utilize these photographs in the midst of the dynamism that is the fight footage. So you know, here's the arrival of people in Reno, Nevada. It's the fight of the century. It's between Jim Jefferies, the white-- great white hope, the greatest of all white hopes who has come out of retirement, everyone is sure, to defeat the African American heavyweight champion who's there by accident. He should have never won. It's not his place. And this is a battle between the races. And so you've got some long establishing shots in a few places that we might use. I'm particularly fond of this one. You can see a photographer's booth shaded from the sun. You've got the sense of people with bald heads soon to be bright red, hats around, and then the action. And what you could do is then cut to this shot which would be another angle, not a complete reverse angle, but a way of moving in and getting the details of the hustle and bustle as the two camps arrive at ringside and do their, you know, bench jockeying and their insults and all of that sort of stuff. And so that's how we would use that. NARRATOR: It's just people pouring into the stadium. It's filling up. It's just the excitement just keeps building and building and building. - Once you get into the fight, you obviously have a couple here that are related that present a kind of cinematic opportunity. We can extrapolate a lot of that and find drama that may or may not actually be there. This is Jefferies corner. This is Johnson's corner, Jack Johnson's corner. And they're sort of taunting each other. And we intercut with that. NARRATOR: When he stripped and his mighty body could be seen covered with mats of hair, all the primordial adjectives ever applied...

The drama of truth

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.


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Thank you Ken Burns. I learnt most about emotionally-engaging story-telling. That one plus one can equal three.

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Wonderful work. Imagine how much research and footwork went into collecting all those photographs. On the other hand, it was probably less expensive than obtaining action clips. One of my projects requires lots of archival footage that will probably be super expensive because the main subject, although he has been dead for many years, is still quite popular.

Michael O.

My mission statement: Producing film and theatre in defense of civil and human liberty. It works, but sure is hard work.

Mark M.

Interesting that in the film the image is flipped from the original photo he shows on the magnetic board - wonder why that was done?

Sunny N.

Making sense of our existence as human beings is a promise of every documentary filmmaker. Whether we keep that promise or not depends on our ability to stay true to the promise.

Alex T.

Wow. Ken hit it right on the head. Did not see that coming, And I have so much more respect because this became a true teachable moment for me, and in a completely different way than I was expecting.


Brilliant, so helpful to hear the thoughtful, creative and strategic use of still photos. Burn's description of his process to unlock meaning in just one photo will stay with me for a long, long time.

Betsy B.

I love how Mr. Burns connects the significance of the past as a reflection of the present. We have forgotten how to trace our history in the performance arts which is still so relevant today.......which often times leads to the wrong assumption. History is vital in moving forward...

Andrew Kyle B.

This is really illuminating to me a truth I already knew about cinema, but that I'm not sure I had fully digested yet. Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian filmmaker, said that cinema was "sculpting time," and that seems to be what Ken Burns is driving at. Here's something I wrote in the margins of my notebook: "A film is 24fps, but a single image need not last merely for one frame; sculpt time! That's what cinema is - sculpting time."

Wendell W.

Ken I need your help in showing how one shows how what is going on now "rhymes"with what our fathers and grandfathers went through in the past.

Jonathan S.

He's talking to me far beyond documentary. To hear him say that "Unforgivable Blackness" rhymes perfectly with what our country is going through right now saddens and angers me. What is the matter with us? But I digress from the discussion at hand—or do I?