October 26, 2021 "Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy of Detroit" Wins 2021 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize; "Free Chol Soo Lee" Runner-Up

Four Finalists Include Films on Blues Musician James Cotton, Photographers Ernest Withers and Eadweard Muybridge, and Black and Latino Protests at City College in NYC

Press Contact: Bill Ryan (202) 707-1940
Website: Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film

The Better Angels Society, a non-profit dedicated to the exploration of American history through documentary film, today announced the documentary film “Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy of Detroit,” directed by Sam Katz and James McGovern, is the winner of the 2021 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. The filmmakers will receive finishing funding of $200,000.

“Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy of Detroit,” explores the decline of this American manufacturing city, culminating in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013. It also chronicles the journey that followed, through disaster to possibility.

The runner-up, “Free Chol Soo Lee,” directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, tells the story of a Korean immigrant wrongly convicted of a murder in 1973. The filmmakers will receive $50,000 in finishing funding.

Four finalists, noted below, will each receive finishing funding of $25,000.

In spite of the pandemic, which heavily impacted the arts and entertainment industry, a wide array of late-stage professional American history documentary films were submitted for consideration this year.

An internal committee consisting of filmmakers from Florentine Films and expert staff from the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, the Library’s state-of-the-art moving image and recorded sound preservation facility, reviewed the submissions. The six finalists were then reviewed and narrowed down to the top two submissions by a National Jury consisting of: Edward Ayers, President Emeritus of the University of Richmond and National Humanities Medal recipient; Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University and president of the Teagle Foundation; Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”), award-winning filmmaker and longtime collaborator of director Spike Lee; Dawn Porter (“John Lewis: Good Trouble”), an American documentary filmmaker and the founder of production company Trilogy Films; and Sally Rosenthal (“Mae West: Dirty Blonde”), documentary filmmaker and runner-up for the 2019 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, in consultation with Ken Burns, then selected the winning film.

“We received a stunning collection of films this year,” said Hayden. “Each speaks to a specific period in our country’s history but resonates with issues we are confronting today as a nation.  Selecting the two winners out of the six finalists was hugely difficult. Both were riveting narratives about complicated topics, including the decline of a great city, and its journey back, and a complicated story of injustice that deals with race and bias which plays out in unexpected ways.”

“Each of the films we recognize today is an extraordinary work of art,” said Burns. “We’re so honored to provide the filmmakers with funding to help finish the films and share them with the public. I have long believed that our ability to engage around historical topics will help us tackle some of the challenges we are dealing with today.”

“History helps all of us better understand the country,” said Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine, whose Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation provided the funding for the prize. “These films are riveting stories that introduce us to new facets of our past, reminding us that storytelling about our past speaks directly to challenges in the present and future.”

The 2020 award went to Stefan Forbes’ “Hold Your Fire” which examines the untold story behind the longest hostage siege in New York Police Department history. It was met with rave reviews after its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival last month. The first awardee in 2019 was "Flannery," directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco. A documentary exploring the life of Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor, “Flannery” premiered to much acclaim on the award-winning PBS American Masters series in March 2021.

The winners will be announced on Tuesday, October 26 at 7 p.m. ET, in a virtual event featuring Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and Ken Burns, along with a discussion about archives, history, and storytelling with Dr. Hayden, Burns, filmmaker Dawn Porter (“John Lewis: Good Trouble”), and PBS NewsHour correspondent and Washington Week moderator Yamiche Alcindor. The ceremony will be available to stream here: thebetterangelssociety.org/library-of-congress-lavine-ken-burns-prize-for-film/.

Winning Films

"Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy of Detroit” (winner), directed by Sam Katz and James McGovern. Once heralded as the spirit of American manufacturing, music and democracy, Detroit kicked its fiscal can down the road for decades plummeting into insolvency, culminating in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Gradually, Then Suddenly is the inside story of how a state appointed Emergency Manager and the people of this iconic American city — confronting financial ruin — followed a treacherous path towards a new beginning.

Free Chol Soo Lee” (runner-up), directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi. After a Korean immigrant is wrongly convicted of a 1973 San Francisco Chinatown gang murder, Asian Americans unite as never before to free Chol Soo Lee. A former street hustler becomes the symbol for a landmark movement. But once out, he self-destructs, threatening the movement’s legacy and the man himself.


Bonnie Blue: James Cotton’s Life in the Blues,” directed by Bestor Cram. The story of James Cotton, harmonica powerhouse, whose music shaped blues and rock. Orphaned at nine, Cotton’s life tracks America’s history — from the post-depression cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to being mentored by the original Delta bluesmen, to Chicagoland’s artistic reinvention to the live music scene in Austin, Texas.

Double Exposure” (working title), directed by Phil Bertelsen. Ernest Withers' camera captured the joys and sorrows of African American life and spread the news of civil rights. His photos also appeared in FBI files, provided by informant ME-338-R: Ernest Withers. “Double Exposure” (working title) unravels Withers' mystery and motives, raising questions about loyalty, power, and patriotism in very troubled times.

Exposing Muybridge,” directed by Marc Shaffer. “Exposing Muybridge” is the first feature documentary to tell the melodramatic story of 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge was the first photographer to capture something moving faster than the human eye can see — Leland Stanford's galloping horses — a critical step towards the development of cinema.

The Five Demands,” directed by Greta Schiller. In 1969, Black and Puerto Rican students locked the gates of the City College of New York with five demands for increasing diversity and access to education. Fueled by the revolutionary fervor sweeping the nation, their protest turned into a two-week historic takeover that changed the face of higher education.

You can view previews of this year’s film finalists here: loc.gov/programs/lavine-ken-burns-prize-for-film/prize-winners/

Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Film Showcase

The Better Angels Society also announced that earlier winning films, along with winners of the Next Generation Angels Awards, consisting of middle and high school students, will be available for streaming as part of a film showcase from October 23 to October 27. You can view the showcase here: loc.gov/programs/lavine-ken-burns-prize-for-film/film-showcase/. The featured films are:

“The Adventures of Saul Bellow,” Asaf Galay (2019 finalist). This is the first major documentary on one of America’s greatest writers, Saul Bellow.  The film examines Bellow’s influence on American literature, explores Bellow as a public figure, and looks at how he dealt with key issues of his time, including race, gender, and the Jewish and immigrant experience.

“Beethoven in Beijing,” * Jennifer Lin & Sharon Mulally (2020 Finalist). Dispatched by President Nixon in 1973 to help open the “bamboo curtain” separating the Chinese and American people, the iconic Philadelphia Orchestra now turns to its past as a cultural ambassador to strengthen its precarious future at home.

“Cured,” Bennett Singer & Patrick Sammon (2020 Runner-up). Until 1973, doctors automatically classified every gay man and lesbian as mentally ill. "Cured" tells the David-versus-Goliath story of the activists who challenged this diagnosis — and won.

“Flannery,” Elizabeth Coffman (2019 Winner). A gothic story fueled by televangelists and girls with wooden legs, “Flannery'' covers the biography of writer Flannery O’Connor with archival footage and creative motion graphics. A devout Catholic who walked with crutches, O’Connor wrote about the enduring prejudices of the postwar south. Mystery and manners abound in this work.

“The First Angry Man,” Jason Cohn (2019 Finalist). This film tells the story of political outsider Howard Jarvis and the California property tax revolt he led during Governor Jerry Brown’s first term in 1978. Historians credit Jarvis’ campaign for Proposition 13 with triggering a national anti-tax, anti-government movement with immeasurable and enduring consequences.

“Mae West: Dirty Blonde,” Sally Rosenthal & Julia Marchesi (2019 Runner-up). “Mae West: Dirty Blonde" is a feature-length historical documentary film developed by Peeled Grape Productions LLC for PBS’ American Masters. The film explores the extraordinary career and legacy of this complex cultural figure, who left an indelible imprint on American entertainment as a writer, performer, and agitator for social change.

“Mr. Soul,” * Melissa Haizlip (2019 Finalist). Before Oprah, before Arsenio, there was “Mr. Soul.” An in-depth look at the late 1960s WNET public television series SOUL! and its producer Ellis Haizlip, who provided expanded images of African Americans on television, shifting the gaze from inner-city poverty and violence to the vibrancy of the Black Arts Movement.

* Films available for viewing exclusively on HBO Max and PBS Passport streaming services.

To learn more about the 2021 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, please visit: loc.gov/programs/lavine-ken-burns-prize-for-film/about-this-program/

About Ken Burns

Ken Burns has been making documentary films for more than 40 years.  Since the Academy Award nominated "Brooklyn Bridge" in 1981, Ken has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, including "The Civil War"; "Baseball"; "Jazz"; "The Statue of Liberty"; "Huey Long"; "Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery"; "Frank Lloyd Wright"; "Mark Twain"; "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson"; "The War"; "The National Parks: America’s Best Idea"; "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History"; "Jackie Robinson"; "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War"; "The Vietnam War", "The Mayo Clinic: Faith - Hope – Science"; "Country Music"; and most recently, "Hemingway" and "Muhammad Ali."  Burns' films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including 16 Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards and two Oscar nominations; and in September 2008, Burns was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

About The Better Angels Society

The Better Angels Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating Americans about their history through documentary film. Their mission is to educate, engage and provoke thoughtful discussion among people of every political persuasion and ideology. They work to ensure historically significant films are completed, broadcast, promoted, and shared in ways that reach and inform as many people as possible through robust educational and civic outreach. The Society is currently raising funds for films in production and planned over the next ten years.

The Better Angels Society is also working to ensure that the next generation of documentary filmmakers, inspired by Ken Burns and his team, receive the education, mentoring, training, and support they need to continue his legacy.

About the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation

Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine established the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation to focus a significant portion of their philanthropic efforts toward leveling the playing field for individuals and families. The Foundation works to address pressing social challenges in the areas of education, community and public service, health and welfare, discrimination and poverty. The Foundation supports the multi-disciplinary efforts of organizations that serve to strengthen society through research, innovation, public policy, direct service and advocacy.

About the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library, offering access to the creative record of the United States — and extensive materials from around the world — both on-site and online. It is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office.  Explore collections, reference services and other programs and plan a visit at loc.gov; access the official site for U.S. federal legislative information at congress.gov; and register creative works of authorship at copyright.gov.


PR 21-065
ISSN 0731-3527