Documentary about photographer Ernest Withers finalist for film prize

The Withers’ documentary is among six finalists for the 2021 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 six finalists for the third annual Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. Established in 2019, the annual award recognizes filmmakers whose documentaries use original research and compelling narrative to tell stories that touch on some aspect of American history.

Third Annual Award to Provide $200,000 Finishing Grant to One of Six Film Finalists

The Better Angels Society, a non-profit dedicated to the exploration of American history through documentary film, has announced the six finalists for the third annual Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film which recognizes filmmakers whose documentaries use original research and compelling narrative to tell stories on American history.

Finalists this year include filmmaker Phil Bertelsen and his film Double Exposure (working title), which dives into complex issues around race in the U.S. as explored through the lens of photographer Ernest Withers. The finalists explore a wide variety of themes and stories not often told in U.S. history including compelling films about protest and activism, diverse biographies of musician James Cotton, photographers Ernest Withers and Eadweard Muybridge, and the wrongly convicted Korean American immigrant Chol Soo Lee, and a riveting examination of the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy.

Cover feature photo: the South Main mural depicting the Withers’ famed 1968 photograph. From

The winning filmmaker will receive a $200,000 grant to finish the in-production film and to help with outreach and marketing. Additionally, the runner-up will receive a $50,000 grant, and up to four finalists will each receive a $25,000 grant. 

The 3rd Annual Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film will be awarded on Tuesday, October 26 in a virtual event featuring Librarian of Congress Dr. 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.

2021 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film Finalists

The 2021 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film finalists are:


The story of James Cotton, harmonica powerhouse, whose music shaped blues and rock. Orphaned at 9, 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.

FREE CHOL SOO LEE, 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.


Once heralded as the spirit of American manufacturing, music and democracy, Detroit kicked its fiscal can down the road plummeting into insolvency, culminating in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013. Gradually, Then Suddenly is the riveting story of this great American city’s journey through disaster to possibility.

You can view previews of this year’s film finalists here:

Select 2019 and 2020 Film Finalists Available for Streaming Online

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 2020 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. The Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, in consultation with Ken Burns, then selected the winning film.


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:

The featured films are: 


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.


Tasha Van Zandt (2020 Finalist)

This film follows polar explorer Will Steger’s journey as an eyewitness to the changes in the polar regions of our planet. Thirty years after his expedition across Earth’s coldest continent, Steger is not only known for being the first in history to complete this feat – he is also the last.


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.


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.


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.

PUNCH 9 FOR HAROLD WASHINGTON (five-minute short)

Joe Winston (2020 Finalist)

This historical documentary tells the story of a grassroots national movement of women clerical workers who endured low pay, disrespect and sexual harassment. By the early 1970s, they had had enough. They gathered their courage, rose up against their bosses and started fighting for a better life.

STORMING CAESAR’S PALACE (five-minute short)

Hazel Gurland-Porter (2020 Finalist)

This film is an intimate portrait of Ruby Duncan who built a grassroots anti-poverty movement of low-income black mothers in Las Vegas. Championing a Universal Basic Income in 1969, they led their own War on Poverty — and almost won, challenging notions of the “Welfare Queen.”

To learn more about the 2021 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, please visit:

About Ken Burns

Ken Burns has been making documentary films for over 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, and most recently Country Music.  Ken’s films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including sixteen Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards and two Oscar nominations; and in September of 2008, at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards, Ken 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; access the official site for U.S. federal legislative information at; and register creative works of authorship at

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