Interview: Ken Burns on 'The Central Park Five' and the thriving state of documentary filmmaking
Legendary documentarian Ken Burns wants to make sure the spotlight isn't too focused on him this time around. The fact is, the story of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Kharey Wise -- the "Central Park Five," as they have come to be known -- had galvanized his daughter, Sarah, while she was in college. It was her passion, through school studies and a published book that spawned the film in the first place. The two serve as co-directors on the new film "The Central Park Five" along with Sarah's husband, David McMahon.
But the story of Burns's perch, seeing his daughter grow a passion for a subject and see it through, is a touching one. It began when Sarah was a little girl, he says, crawling under and behind the editing machine when he was working in analog in the early-1980s. And now, she's grown into an accomplished filmmaker just like her father.
"She’s been that way all along," Burns says. "She’s a steel trap. She’s serious. She’s not sentimental. She kept this on a straight, journalistic track that made it, I think, as good as it is. So it’s been a source of great pride and excitement for me."
"The Central Park Five" revisits the miscarriage of justice that saw the five aforementioned youths, now grown men, wrongfully convicted of the rape of a Central Park jogger in 1989. New York had reached a peak of racial tension, one largely fueled by the media, which in turn fanned the flames around the case and played its own role in the convictions. The film, then, is a commentary on mob mentality, from pressured cops leaning on kids for a confession to news outlets banging the drum for justice to convinced jurors pressing a lone hold-out for a guilty vote. But for Burns, it also ended up being a story about character.
"What’s so interesting is the way that these five have taken lemons and made lemonade," he says. "'The Central Park Five' meant, in the very beginning, 'criminals,' and now it means something else: people who are standing up and have a humanity and have a dignity."
There's a great deal of irony, he submits, in that a group painted as the worst possible people turn out to have been good kids and good human beings, and that those who are stuck in a lie (media, law enforcement) can't get out of it. "As Jim Dwyer from The New York Times says, we all make mistakes in our lives," Burns says. "It’s the question of what we’re gonna do with it…I think somewhere along the line they went, 'Uh,' and they realized, 'We’ve got to keep going with this,' because to say that 'we screwed up' was to essentially take back every lurid headline, every 'if it bleeds it leads' local TV and national TV thing. It just meant, 'We didn’t do our jobs right. We made a mistake.' But that’s what the justice system should be about."
His passion bubbles up as he talks, digging back into the case, the lack of DNA evidence, the botched investigation of a suspect who turned out to be the real and admitted rapist, the half-hearted mea culpa 13 years later, etc. And, of course, his harsh gaze eventually falls upon the media.
"They amplified it," he says. "They shouted this to every Middlesex village and farm and I think now the media has to own its own culpability of this. And one of the ways they can do it is scream just as loudly about the continuing injustice of delaying the closure of this trial. They have, by not settling this, taken a 13-year-old tragedy and they’ve left these kids, these men, in limbo for another 10 years. That’s justice delayed, which we know is justice denied. And settling this, finding a conclusion, finding closure in this heals not only the five and their families, it heals those cops and those prosecutors and the entire city of New York. This is a festering, infected wound that has the possibility of being healed."
The project grew out of an internship Sarah took on in the summer of 2003 as part of her American Studies major at Yale. She worked for the firm that was preparing the Five's lawsuit against the city of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress. She got to understand the story, and the Five, very well, which led to the decision to write a paper about it in school. That work finally culminated in the 2011 book "The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding."
Burns was reading the first pages and found it instantly compelling. He knew the story, remembered how much play the original crime got and how little play the exoneration and vacation of the convictions got over a decade later. But he wasn't aware, until he read those first few pages, of how great the story was.