American Experience. Think about what those two words together mean. One gets a sense from the combination that one will witness something essential about our nation. The self-celebrating introduction, with its panoply of iconic images and sweeping inspiring music seems to reinforce the impression of the title, and take up the whole meaning of American History. It reinforces the notion that what one is going to see is something that speaks for all of us, and represents what is genuinely American about America. Above all, one would hope that film makers brave enough to name their series 'The American Experience' would take their job seriously as historians, and make it their goal to bring light, understanding, insight to the subjects they take up.
What is the insight of this production? I can save you the trouble of having to watch it, and give it to you in six words:
Henry Ford was a bad person.
I do feel that there is a great History Documentary somewhere in this thing, but whatever insight may have been in play during the making of this film, it did not make it to the final edit. This production lurches between grudging acknowledgement of Ford's accomplishments as an industrialist and a rather too eager penchant to insinuate every possible slight on his personal character. One senses from the very beginning that the intent of the producers was not to understand Ford, but to judge him, and find him wanting. Henry Ford was an anti-semite. That pretty much damns him as far as PBS is concerned. I think they took the wrong approach, and I'll tell you why below.
From the very first image we are confronted with the face of a real man who lived in our nation and whom we are told again and again shaped the world we live in. I was struck watching the opening sequence, how easily one can dispose of a major historical figure with modern technology. Simply combine a pan-and-scan image of an old photo-portrait with vaguely uneasy-sounding music and sweeping objectifications, and that's it—he is what you say he is. I found myself, as this piece wore on, more and more sympathetic with Henry Ford, if only because he has become the subject of a piece intended to discredit him, by people who did not know him and whom he cannot answer to. I feel quite strongly that whatever he was, this piece does not do him justice.
We see in it the clear influence of Ken Burns, the use of historic photographs and footage, the invocation of earnest historians intent on casting their interpretation on a particular era. But one must acknowledge that, however masterful Burns' treatment of such thorny and difficult issues as Slavery, Racism and White-Supremacy were, there is none of his light touch here. Whereas Burns succeeds in navigating the difficult and challenging territory of Race Relations during the Civil War with masterful aplomb, American Experience, faced with the comparatively easier task of assessing Henry Ford's life and legacy, clearly fails. Henry Ford is Bad. That is all. His failings as a human being have no context, no parallels, and no explanation. And that makes the piece not only shallow, but what is worse in Television terms, unentertaining.
One of the cardinal sins of historiography is to project one's values back onto a different era. There is not the slightest effort to put Ford's anti-semitism, attitudes towards industry and labor into context. They do touch on the point that he was at odds with the modernity he helped create, but this is portrayed as lack of vision, and perhaps a failure of nerve, from one of the bravest most visionary industrialists the world has ever known. Clearly, according to PBS we are not to understand Henry Ford in context, we are to judge him in _our_ terms. And that judgement is clear. Henry Ford was a bad person.
One detects in some of the interviewees a more nuanced appraisal of Ford that might have saved this piece from its heavy-handed moralizing, if only they'd been given more scope. Mr. Watts, on the other hand, seems to be the canary the producers were looking for. Some particularly egregious quotes from Mr. Watts:
"Henry Ford loved the Model T more than _ANYTHING_."
Really? How would we determine that, as a comment on history?
"Bennet was the son Henry Ford wanted Edsel to be."
Goodness. That's quite a statement. Do we have any evidence of that? Any supporting quotations? No? Because that's the sort of thing one doesn't want to just offer, you know, winging it on the whole armchair psychoanalysis from eight decades away.
"It's clear that, with the Rouge River Factory Henry Ford was determined to do nothing but make as many cars as quickly and efficiently as possible." (cue the ominous evil music.)
What, precisely, _should_ Henry Ford have done with his factory? Is that not what a factory is supposed to do?
The piece is full of these kind of sweeping moralizing denunciations. Henry Ford was just Bad, that's all.
But what if American Experience and PBS had done something different? What if, instead of trying to judge Henry Ford, they had tried to _understand_ him? What if it had gone something like this:
"How can this icon of American Industry, a man who invented the automotive industry as we know it, who helped create the world we live in be an anti-semite (and any other criticism one wishes to level against Mr. Ford)? How do we reconcile the image of the rags-to-riches self-made industrialist who paid his workers more than anyone with the controlling autocrat, the racist authoritarian who...etc. etc. etc. How do we understand the contradictions that made Henry Ford who and what he was?"
In other words make the complexity of your subject work _for_ you, not against you.
This is difficult to do. It requires vision, a vision that PBS and The American Experience lacks. The American Experience failed in their task to understand Henry Ford. And this is a tragedy, because we are left wondering why we should know about such a mean-spirited short-sighted, ignorant racist person? He made a lot of cars. He was nasty to his son. He was rich. So what? That doesn't explain his place in American Popular Consciousness. We are left without insight into the formation of his anti-semitism, how it might have appealed to men like him, and we are forced simply to shake our heads and tsk tsk at yet another great figure who (brace yourself) it turns out wasn't so great.
And if, indeed he largely created the world we inhabit today, as the producers repeated over and over again, what does that say about our world? PBS has insisted Henry Ford was at odds with the world he lived in. Perhaps PBS is at odds with its world too. I have enjoyed The American Experience in the past, but I'm cooling on my appreciation of this program, and has definitely lowered my opinion of their credentials as documentarians of American History.