College Behind Bars Airs on PBS on November 25th!

Mark your calendars! On Nov. 25 & 26 at 9/8c, tune-in or stream #CollegeBehindBarsPBS on @PBS. It’s an incredible look at the amazing human potential inside our prisons and the power of education to transform lives. You can stream here:

The film will be streaming for free on for 60 days post broadcast. Station supporters with pbs passport can stream until June 26th, 2020.

Visit to stream or share.

  • Episodes 1&2 air November 25th at 9/8c.
  • Episodes 3&4 air November 26th at 9/8c.

NYFF Review: ‘College Behind Bars’

NYFF Review: ‘College Behind Bars’

An extraordinary portrait of students in the prison system

College Behind Bars
(USA, 222 min.)
Dir. Lynn Novick

The first hour of Lynn Novick’s four-part documentary series College Behind Bars plays out pretty much how one would expect this story to be told. [The four-part work screens in a single feature presentation at the New York Film Festival.] We meet a series of incarcerated individuals in a number of New York State correctional facilities who are enrolled in the Bard Prisoner Initiative (BPI). Ostensibly a free college education for those behind bars, BPI is set up for a disparate group of individuals who have traded sweeping floors or laundry duty for book studies. For the first episode, they tell their stories, the history of the programme is explained, and we have a fine if superficial view of this situation.

It’s in the subsequent three hours that Novick gently and convincingly builds upon this intro to get at the heart of not only the socio-political and law enforcement ramifications of the opportunities for these students, but also manages to deftly tease out the stories of their lives that brought them in conflict with the law. The simple thing would be to create a film series that over-glorifies the situation, brushing aside the complex moral and ethical circumstances revolving around these men and women. Yet by proceeding in a deliberate yet precise way, College Behind Bars builds into something quite extraordinary.

Novick is probably best known for her collaborations with Ken Burns, the iconic documentarian who serves as Executive Producer on this work. Novick has often been tasked with doing the interviews for their collaborative megaprojects for PBS, and much of her gift for eliciting stories from even the most reticent is fully on display here.

Shot over a period of four years, the film focusses on groups of male and female prisoners that live the twin lives of college student and prisoner. There’s talk of the lack of collegiate distraction afforded by being cloistered, yet the constant fear and institutional nonsense endemic inside jail effects even the most scholarly of the group. In one appalling, Kafkaesque moment, a prisoner is charged with incitement after his creative writing project is found to contain violent and sexually provocative rhetoric and put in solitary confinement and stripped of his ability to attend class. As one fellow classmate/prisoner puts it, he’s put in the hole for doing his homework.

Another haunting moment occurs when an act of violence by an engaged and eloquent student results in confiscation of months and months his of notes and articles, which were serving as the basis for an undergraduate thesis, and then were subsequently (and conveniently) lost by the system. Beyond the stories of childhood mayhem, revenge killings, horrific traumas and the like, I hate to admit that the deletion of all this work is the most personally haunting, as someone who still has thesis-related stress dreams some two decades after I completed my own project.

The film touches upon numerous hot-button topics, from the mass-incarceration factors that occupy the American judicial system to the Clinton Crime Bill that slashed didactic programmes, forcing private money to be used to fund them. The ties to recidivism and education are laid bare, and a central theme that’s repeated throughout is the notion that the individuals are finally given a chance to exercise academic muscles, freeing their minds from their normal fixation on simply surviving in prison or on the street.

The professors from Bard constantly refer to the fact that the standards in the prison education system are identical to those at their prestigious institution. We witness classes: everything from Intermediate Mandarin to calculus to classical literature. The prison outfits almost blend into becoming school uniforms. The intelligence and eloquence on display is often humbling. Yet throughout there are constant reminders of not only the unique challenges these students undergo just to stay afloat, but of course, the very real (and often horrific) things they did to be in jail in the first place.

Debates about what prison is for, be it punishment or rehabilitation, are hardly new. But as Novick’s doc brilliantly demonstrates, under these dichotomies and political postures are the stories of real individuals who often suffered from circumstances almost more abhorrent than the lives they’ve spent within prison walls. These stories are never presented as excuses or explanations, but rather as a kind of witnessing. They are narratives made palpable and comprehensible to those that haven’t lived through them, thanks in part to the educational opportunities that have given the students the tools to finally give voice to their situation.

Throughout we are drawn in fully to the ups and downs of college life, from the triumphs of a debate or thesis defense, to the halted opportunities of those whose actions in jail result in the loss of their ability to attend the school. If there’s ever a better indication of the privilege of education it’s this, the notion that only through model behaviour and obeying the strictures of the guards can one hope to even enter into the scholastic system.

It’s notable that the union representing the guards refused to participate, resulting in their appearances being blurred out and their perspectives of the individuals we hear from absent. There’s talk by a warden that speaks to some of the hostility that is raised by the schooling – many of the guards themselves lack higher education – and that is certainly one vector that could use further exploration in a follow-up piece.

Novick’s film certainly doesn’t present these educational opportunities as panacea for all ills, but it’s difficult to avoid being swayed by the testimony of those involved and the changes we witness over the doc’s scope. This film injects into political discourse a powerful indication of just how schooling shapes those that grab them, resulting in a deeply humanistic film that conveys all the deep and troubling sides of these issues. The happy, simple version of College Behind Bars is contained in the first act, and a lesser work would have ended it there, with a nice, feel-good and simplistic wrap-up. Credit is owed to the director and her team to keep digging, resulting in a quite extraordinary and effective film that illuminates brilliantly the lives of these men and women and the teachers that give them the opportunities they never had outside the prison walls.

Statement from the The Better Angels Society on the Passing of Cokie Roberts

The Better Angels Society joins Americans all across the country in mourning the loss of Cokie Roberts, who was a friend and an enthusiastic supporter of our work, as well as a member of the newly-established Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film Honorary Committee.

Her passion for American history, her lifelong leadership in encouraging civic discourse, and her commitment to the truth will continue to inspire us.
We will miss her, and we will remember her, always.
Amy Berg, President
The Better Angels Society

Country Music Premieres September 15th!

Country Music – A Film by Ken Burns (Eight Episodes)

Premieres:  September 15 – 18, 2019 Episodes 101-104 @ 8pm ET/PT, repeated @ 10pm ET/PT

September 22 – 25, 2019 Episodes 105-108 @ 8pm ET/PT, repeated @ 10pm ET/PT, except 107 @ 10:30pm ET/PT on September 24
Additional plays may include weekend marathons on the weekends of September 20 & 21 and 27 & 28.

Country Music Streaming Plans:

The film will be available for streaming across PBS digital platforms (web, mobile and OTT), including exclusive streaming opportunities for PBS Passport members.

  • All audience members (FVOD – Free Video On Demand) can stream episodes 1-4 starting on the premiere night, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019.
  • All audience members (FVOD) can binge episodes 5-8 starting on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019
  • PBS Passport members (MVOD – Membership Video On Demand) can stream all 8 episodes starting on the premiere night, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019.
  • Each episode will be available for FVOD streaming for 21 days (3 weeks) after its broadcast, then will roll into Passport (MVOD) through Friday, February 28, 2020.


The Better Angels Society 2018-2019 Annual Report

We are proud to present The Better Angels Society’s Annual Report for the 2018-2019 year. It has been a remarkable year of growth for The Better Angels Society, having launched new programs like the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, the Next Generation Angels Awards in partnership with National History Day, and a new partnership with Georgetown University, all featured in this report. You will also find previews of upcoming releases like Country Music, College Behind Bars, and Hemingway, and updates on our financials and the Ken Burns Unum digital platform.

Rolling Stone: See Vince Gill’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ From Ken Burns ‘Country Music’ Concert

Country Music: Live at the Ryman, A Concert Celebrating the Film by Ken Burns’ will air on PBS on September 8th

One week ahead of the premiere of Country Music, the eight-part historical documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns, PBS will air Country Music: Live at the Ryman, A Concert Celebrating the Film by Ken Burns, an all-star celebration of the genre featuring performances by Vince GillDierks Bentley, Rosanne Cash, Rhiannon Giddens, Kathy Mattea, Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam and more. Hosted by the filmmaker, the concert touched on the many styles that have defined and propelled country music through the years, from old-time mountain melodies and bluegrass to outlaw country and the Nashville Sound. [READ MORE]

The Better Angels Society is Pleased to Announce the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film


Annual Award to Recognize Exemplary Accomplishment in Historical Documentaries
Next Generation Angels Prize for Young Filmmakers to be Presented in Partnership with National History Day

Washington, DC – March 5, 2019 – The Better Angels Society, the Library of Congress, and the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation today announced the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, an annual award to recognize exemplary accomplishment in historical documentaries.

The award, which will be presented each fall at a gala at the Library of Congress, will recognize a filmmaker whose documentary uses original research and compelling narrative to tell stories that touch on some aspect of American history.  More information about the award and requirements for submission can be found at:  The winner will receive a $200,000 finishing grant to help with the final production of the film. The submission deadline for the inaugural prize is June 1.

“I’ve been very fortunate to spend my career focused on our country’s history,” said Ken Burns.  “While each film is different, they all ask the same question about who we are as a people.  History is of course fraught with complexity and is often divisive. But somehow by confronting this history together, and the many stories that make it up, we become closer.  I’m honored and humbled to join the Library of Congress, The Better Angels and Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine and the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation to help other filmmakers working in this space share their stories.  By supporting their work, and diverse stories and voices, I’m hopeful we can engage new generations of Americans in understanding our past.”

“Documentary film is one of the most engaging media for bringing our nation’s history to life,” said Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress. “As Ken has demonstrated prolifically and beautifully through his work over the years, piecing together historic photographs, manuscripts, music, oral histories and other primary source materials into a narrative moving image can capture our hearts and minds like nothing else. The Library is a treasure trove of these materials, and I hope this new prize elevates awareness of the Library as an inspirational national resource among documentary filmmakers of the present and the future. We are honored to join The Better Angels, Ken and the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation to launch this award.”

“We believe an understanding of history is critical to a healthy and functioning democracy,” noted Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine.  “We are exceptionally proud of the support we have provided Ken and his team.  We are equally excited about building on this work and creating a new program in partnership with our colleagues at The Better Angels Society and the Library of Congress. This prize will recognize other filmmakers working in this space and the stories that they can share with the millions of Americans who have learned about America’s past from the extraordinary work of Ken Burns.”  Jeannie Lavine works on several national boards, including The Better Angels Society’s Board of Directors. Jonathan Lavine is the Co-Managing Partner of Bain Capital and a Co-Chair of the Trustees of Columbia University.

Interested filmmakers are invited to apply for the award through the website at

To be eligible for the award, films must meet the following criteria:

  1. The project must be a late stage documentary film with a running time of 60 minutes or more.
  2. The subject matter of the film must be American history.
  3. The applicant must have previously produced or directed at least one long-form documentary for broadcast or online distribution.
  4. The applicant must submit 20 minutes of a rough or fine cut AND a script of a full-length rough or fine cut at time of submission of application. (Note: Upon request, applicant will need to be able to provide a full-length rough or fine cut for review.)
  5. Industrial, promotional, branded content or instructional films are not eligible.

In addition to the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, The Better Angels will partner with National History Day, to award the Next Generation Angels Awards recognizing six individual documentary filmmakers in the junior and senior divisions.  These include an award named in memory of Anne Harrington, a colleague who handled outreach and education for Burns’s films who passed away in 2018.  Finalists will be recognized at the National History Day National Contest held each June at the University of Maryland, College Park, and will return for special programming to honor them and showcase their work in the fall. Winners will be invited to attend the Library of Congress award gala in Washington, D.C. as well.  More information about the award is also available at:

About Ken Burns

Ken Burns has been making documentary films for over forty 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, and, most recently, The Mayo Clinic:  Faith – Hope – Science.  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