When the truth was revealed 13 years later—namely that the assailant was a serial rapist named Matias Reyes—the five were freed from prison. Their civil lawsuits against the City of New York, the police officers and prosecutors who had worked toward their conviction remain unresolved after nine years.
The Central Park Five, a focus on a miscarriage of justice in the Big Apple, is co-directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon. It continues Burns’ commitment to understanding racial tension in America as evinced in such epic documentaries as The Civil War, Jazz and Baseball.
The film originated with Burns’ daughter: “I actually started this as my undergraduate senior essay ... about media representations of the Central Park Five for my American Studies degree at Yale University,” said Sarah Burns. “I was so taken by this case that I decided to write a book.”
The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, published in 2011 by Knopf, served as the basis for the film. “Getting the trust of the five ... was crucial,” said Ken Burns. “They were railroaded by the media—both in 1989 and 2002, when those who had convicted them refused to admit their mistake.”
The Central Park Five is not simply an investigation of how Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam gave videotaped confessions after hours of aggressive interrogation (mainly because they thought they were being held as witnesses). Interviews with experts like New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer provide a rich context. We see brief TV news clips of other crimes, reminding us that New York City was a fearful place in 1989; Dwyer calls it a “garden of terrors.”
Ken Burns reflected on the film’s political agenda. “I don’t want to see revenge exacted on cops or prosecutors,” he said. “It’s a little late for that. The statute of limitations—spiritual as well as legal—has lapsed. These young men had their lives blown apart, their childhoods arrested and disposed of. They are now in their late 30s, still not made whole.”
“Everyone has wishes for their film. You want to go to Cannes, to win an Oscar, to have good reviews, to have a lot of people like it ... But first and foremost, we want to see some sort of justice ... The boys could have a closure on the event itself. They’d have a chance—with whatever modest settlement they would receive—to start their lives, to reset. New York can’t do this soon enough.”
The film raises larger, still relevant questions about the justice system, the media frenzy and what Dwyer calls “institutional protectionism.”
“It would be foolish to say that the story is done, that we live in a post-racial society,” Ken Burns said. “That’s what we struggle with ... to come to terms with America’s original sin, which is race.”
Ken Burns said that his initial intent was to direct the film by himself. But once the division of labor became clear, he decided to share the credit.
“We’re in the documentary business: we can’t fictionalize the directorship,” he said. “Like having nine Supreme Court members, it permitted a great adjudication of the millions of decisions that are made.”
“Seventy-five percent of the time, the three of us agreed,” David MacMahon said, “And if only two out of three agreed, it permitted us to let go and move on.”
Telluride Film Festival Moderator Annette Insdorf is the author of Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust and Philip Kaufman, and the director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University.
Copyright Annette Insdorf: All Rights Reserved.
THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE
U.S., 2012, 119m
Director and writers: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon