‘Statue of Liberty’, by Ken Burns

Statue of Liberty (Ken Burns, 1985)

Ken Burns is perhaps the most well known American director of the historical voice-over, archive-footage documentary style. This is one of his earlier films and has been selected because of the iconic status of the Statue of Liberty as a sign of transition: transitions between inside and outside, foreign and resident, free and enslaved.

Initially the film shows a straightforward history of the building of the monument, but about halfway through a shift in tone takes place to more personal perspectives on what the monument means – particularly to American migrants – as they first arrive in the country. In the extract chosen Burns deconstructs the meanings of Liberty through the subjective voices of his interviewees. These personal histories are always in dialogue with the “official” historical narrative of the film, sometimes in opposition, sometimes not. Here, James Baldwin and Milos Forman debate the meaning of the Statue of Liberty to them; in Baldwin’s case, highlighting the irony that this symbol of freedom holds for African Americans a completely different meaning. Elsewhere in the film the role of Ellis Island as first point of arrival is discussed – again, the multifarious meaning of this supposedly straightforward piece of the built environment is emphasised. Read more on ‘Why I Decided to Make The Statue of Liberty’.

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About (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.
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One Response to ‘Statue of Liberty’, by Ken Burns

  1. Pingback: Full list of films screened at the #UCL Urban Migration Film Festival and Symposium | Urban Migration Films

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