Racialized Documentary Reception of Ken Burns’ Jazz

by Hector Amaya (Southwestern University)
This essay investigates the critical reception of the documentary Jazz: The Story of
America’s Music, directed by Ken Burns and shown on PBS in 2001. Although studies
on reception are now common regarding television, the reception of documentary is an
underexplored area. Typically, documentary theory has placed an emphasis on truth and
epistemology; only recently have there been inquiries on audiences. Expanding on the
latter contributions, the author looks at critics’ reception of the documentary and the
way identity and truth related to racialized interpretations of the text. The author’s
analysis suggests that these viewers responded strongly to the documentary’s racial
arguments. However, the responses were not determined by the viewer’s race. To rec-
oncile this finding with an idea of race as determinant of reception, the author proposes
that it is not the viewer’s racial identity but the function of race in the viewer’s life that
determines modes of reception.(download)