Interview: Ken Burns on 'The Central Park Five' and the thriving state of documentary filmmaking

Posted by · 12:54 pm · November 7th, 2012

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.

“That”s what we look for,” he says. “And even though the film is so stylistically different from many of the other films I”ve done — no narration, different sort of musical sensibility to it — it nonetheless is in keeping with the many themes that we find throughout our work, which is race and justice and American good and bad. It”s in all of it.”

Over the years Burns has worked with his daughter and McMahon on documentary projects, but this is the first time they share credit for the finished product equally. The collaboration was smooth, he says. There was no real sense of competition or fights or anything. Just a nice system of checks and balances.

“Two of us always agreed on something and the other one had to give it up,” he says. “Sometimes it was Sarah and Dave saying, ‘No, Dad,’ and other times it was Sarah and me saying, ‘No, Dave,’ or sometimes it was Dave and me, having had the most filmmaking experience saying, ‘No, Sarah.’  And it really worked well.”

He also makes it a point of mentioning editor Michael Levine as a crucial collaborator in the enterprise, drawing all of the original interview material together with news footage and the accoutrement of investigative filmmaking to compose a powerful but strictly informative piece of work.

But one under fire itself, nevertheless.

In early September, lawyers representing New York City subpoenaed unused footage from the film to use as supporting evidence in the still-pending, aforementioned lawsuit. The city feels the film is in the realm of advocacy, rather than documentary, but Burns feels first and foremost that shield laws apply for the film’s protection as journalism, and that, more to the point, his and his co-directors’ continued request for law enforcement participation in interviews shows a clear objective intention. It’s ironic, he feels, that his “least subjective film” has drawn this kind of controversy, but he is also incredibly insulted by the whole undertaking.

“In their original subpoena, they put the Matias Reyes, the actual rapist”s, confession in quotes,” he says. “They put the word ‘confession’ in quotes, which I found just an unbelievable insult, not just to us but to the judge that ruled on the vacation of the conviction, on the other colleagues of theirs who reinvestigated, on their old boss, Robert Morgenthau, who is now retired but still actively following this. It”s an amazing, amazing bit of cynicism and an attempt to rewrite the facts. Its like saying, ‘No, no, no. Two and two really do equal five. I promise. I promise.'”

The film enters a lively documentary fray later this month as it joins such heralded work as “The Imposter,” “Searching for Sugar Man” and “West of Memphis.” The wealth of quality work will make for an intriguing awards race in the non-fiction realm, and it’s representative of something larger, too.For someone who has had his finger on the pulse of documentary filmmaking for three decades, Burns has a fair idea of how thriving it may be. His optimism bursts through as he notes that the form is “only getting better” as more and more people are turning to it.

“I”ve been saying for 30 years that it”s a golden age,” he says. “We thought for a while that documentary was a narrow band of the spectrum and that Hollywood produced this wide variety of things, but as we”ve seen the forms get so tired and so worn out and the same familiar plot, we realize that each documentary is itself a new set of dramatic things.

“And there’s so many varieties of documentaries, from the stylized work of Errol Morris to the political advocacy of Michael Moore, from the humor of Morgan Spurlock to the cinéma vérité of Fred Wiseman. There”s just tons and tons and tons of varieties of documentaries that are, I think, expanding the notion of how we tell stories. And they”re no longer didactic. They”re no longer homework. They”re as dramatic as feature films.”

“The Central Park Five” opens in limited release on November 23.

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