When acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns accepted an invitation from Putney’s Greenwood School to judge its annual student recitation of the Gettysburg Address, he didn’t think a homework assignment could move him to tears.
“You and I can memorize it with some effort, but it’s a minefield for these boys,” Burns says of 50 sixth- through 12th-graders with dyslexia, attention difficulties and other “learning differences.” “What they do is so heroic, I just wept and said, ‘This should be a film.’”
The Emmy award winner behind such documentaries as “The Civil War” seems the perfect person for the job. But Burns’ signature style is more black-and-white history than the current colors of what he calls “cinema verité.” Besides, his schedule is booked through “Ernest Hemingway” in 2019.
But as the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s epic statement approached, the New Englander now juggling “The Roosevelts” (coming this fall) “Jackie Robinson” (2015) “Vietnam” (2016) and “Country Music” (2018) decided to write, produce and direct one more work himself.
“The Address,” airing Tuesday on PBS, is a 90-minute documentary on a 272-word, 10-sentence speech’s ability to spark life-changing transformations past and present.
Lincoln penned and presented the text in 1863 to rally a nation split by the War Between the States.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he began. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
The president, speaking at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., didn’t consider his two-minute speech to be anything timeless.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” he continued, “but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
That, Lincoln concluded, was “a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Fast-forward to 1978, when the founders of the Greenwood School created the now annual assignment of memorizing and reciting the address.
“It’s an example of hard work and perseverance,” Headmaster Stewart Miller explains to an assembly of skeptical boys at the film’s start.
Students receive the speech at Thanksgiving and have three months to practice before, donning blazers and ties, they deliver it for 250 family members and friends on Presidents Day.
Burns, who resides in nearby Walpole, N.H., winnowed 320 hours of resulting footage into an hour-and-a-half film that reveals the story behind Lincoln’s speech and students’ reasons for trying to recite it.
“It just tells people I’m not stupid — it just tells people I’m not dumb — it just tells people I’m not worthless,” says one boy, unwittingly and heartbreakingly exposing the bullying, marginalization and ultimate hurt faced by many before they discovered the private school.
Burns premiered the film for students, teachers, parents and the public earlier this month at a sold-out screening at Brattleboro’s 750-seat Latchis Theatre.
“The Gettysburg Address could possibly be the most important speech in American history,” he told the crowd.
So much so, the filmmaker has created a website, www.learntheaddress.org, “to encourage everyone in America to video record themselves reading or reciting the speech,” it says on its homepage.
Log on and you can listen to President Barack Obama, Martha Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Sesame Street’s Elmo each take a turn. Then again, those wanting to hear local voices can tune into Vermont Public Television at 9 p.m. Tuesday or see additional footage at vpt.org/address.
“This could be a terrific moment for all of us,” Burns says. “The kind of medicine that it was for the United States at the time of the Civil War is the kind of medicine it could be for us today.”
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