The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, when a frenzied wheat boom on the southern Plains, followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s, nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation. Menacing black blizzards killed farmers’ crops and livestock, threatened the lives of their children, and forced thousands of desperate families to pick up and move somewhere else. Vivid interviews with more than two dozen survivors of those hard times, combined with dramatic photographs and seldom seen movie footage, bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible human perseverance.
The Dust Bowl, a four-hour, two-episode documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us—a lesson we ignore at our peril.
Ken Burns gets to the heart of the matter once again with The Dust Bowl. Using his established formula of photos, film footage, music, and interviews (including some very affecting recollections by those who lived through it), the documentarian details one of the grimmest periods in our history--"an epic of human pain and suffering" that, though relatively recent, is little known to most, other than by way of some Woody Guthrie songs and perhaps John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. When Oklahoma earned its statehood in 1907, it was a land of clear skies, fertile land, and enough rain to enable farmers to grow amber waves of grain that stretched for millions of acres. But with lying real estate agents crowing about the land's inexhaustible sustainability, the government urging more and more homesteaders to relocate there, and pretty much everyone ignoring the fact that the last decade of the 19th century had seen terrible droughts throughout the region of the Panhandle and beyond, the land was plowed far beyond its capacity for planting (the first of the documentary's two parts is entitled "The Big Plow Up"). And when the Depression arrived and the rain disappeared, the result was the worst human-made environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, a decade-long disaster of genuinely biblical proportions that featured famine, pestilence (having killed off the coyote population, farmers were visited by a frightful plague of jackrabbits), disease, wind… and dust. For most of all, this is a story about dust--the "black blizzards" that blocked out the sun, carried away the topsoil, killed off livestock, seeped into people's homes, and found its way into their lungs, with deadly results. The photos and footage of the enormous, mile-high dust storms that blew across the plains--including the one that arrived on April 14, 1935, a day forever known as "Black Sunday"--are humbling and scary. At the same time, one gains a new appreciation for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who marshaled government forces to help out, and especially the people themselves, some of whom headed west to California but many of whom stayed on to try to rebuild their lives. Kudos to Burns and his colleagues, including writer Dayton Duncan, for illuminating another quintessentially American story. --Sam Graham