“Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy of Detroit,” a documentary film directed by Sam Katz and James McGovern, has won the 2021 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film and a finishing grant of $200,000.
The award is presented by the Washington, D.C.-based Better Angels Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the exploration of American history through documentary film.
The Detroit documentary explores the decline of the city, culminating in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013. It also chronicles the journey that followed, through disaster to possibility.
“Each of the films we recognize today is an extraordinary work of art,” says noted documentarian Ken Burns. “We’re so honored to provide the filmmakers with grants 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.”
Submissions were reviewed by an internal committee consisting of filmmakers from Florentine Films and expert staff from the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, the Library of Congress’ state-of-the-art moving image and recorded sound preservation facility. Six finalists were then reviewed and narrowed down to the top two submissions by a national jury.
The runner-up was “Free Chol Soo Lee,” directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, which tells the story of a Korean immigrant wrongly convicted of a murder in 1973.
“We received a stunning collection of films this year,” says Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress. “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.”