Ken Burns takes new approach to powerful themes in “The Central Park Five”

Famed filmmaker Ken Burns may be most known for his documentary productions focused on various historical periods of America, but they often also touch on elements and themes that run throughout our nation’s history, including the present day. This ability to find the common issues that America has dealt — and continues to deal — with is one of the things that makes Burns’ films so compelling. So while his latest effort, The Central Park Five, may seem a departure for him — and it is, at least technically, not relying heavily on black-and-white photos from long-ago eras, or narration, or historians offering insight — it really fits right in with his continuing search, through film, of what has made our country what it is today, including any injustices along the way.

And the injustice featured in The Central Park Five is one of the most notorious in recent memory. The two-hour film — based on the book written by Burns’ daughter Sarah, who co-directed and produced the film with her father and David McMahon — looks back at the case of the Central Park Jogger. On April 20, 1989, a woman barely clinging to life was discovered in New York’s Central Park, after she had been attacked and raped. Within days, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam (pictured above, in 1989), Raymond Santana and Korey Wise confessed to her rape and beating after many hours of aggressive interrogation at the hands of seasoned homicide detectives. The case turned into a media frenzy, and the public cried out for justice, leading to the arrest and conviction of the five young men as adults, despite inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, DNA evidence that excluded them and no eyewitness accounts connecting them to the victim.

The five served their complete sentences, between six and 13 years, before another man, serial rapist Matias Reyes, admitted to the crime, and DNA testing supported his confession. In 2002, the original convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated — with far less fanfare in the press than had been given when they were wrongly convicted. A year later, the men filed civil lawsuits against the city of New York, and the police officers and prosecutors who had worked toward their conviction. That lawsuit remains unresolved.

“The interesting thing is that the press is so complicit in this,” says Ken Burns, “the original buying of the story, that when the exoneration came, they weren’t willing to admit their culpability in it so that there was a palpable silence [when the Central Park Five were cleared] except those reactionary forces who were continuing with a narrative. … Most of the press sort of shrunk from the mea culpa that was necessary, I think, to give it the attention that it deserved given the hatchet job that was done on Raymond and the other four at the time and then the subsequent hatchet job that has taken place over the last 10 years in the course of their civil suit as the city has pushed back against any settlement.”

The filmmakers of The Central Park Five certainly give the case and its aftermath the attention it cries out for. Particularly grueling is actual interrogation room video footage of the young men — teens at the time — being grilled by the detectives.

“This is a radical departure for me as a filmmaker,” Burns explains. “Bringing in many new stylistic elements, I think the intensity of the circumstances, and the political and tragic implications, absolutely demanded that we implement an intensified discussion. What I think adds to our story is the humanity of the five young men who are at its center, especially because no one was willing to do that during the original media coverage and trial.”

In a sign that perhaps, ever so slowly, the wheels of justice may finally be turning toward the Central Park Five, recently a federal judge quashed New York City’s subpoena for outtakes and other materials related to The Central Park Five. In a statement, Burns and his fellow filmmakers stated that they hoped this would serve as a further impetus to bring the civil suit against the city — now going on 10 years — to a resolution.

And this powerful film itself should bring extra urgency and attention to that.

The Central Park Five premieres April 16 at 9pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

Watch Central Park Five Trailer on PBS. See more from Central Park Five.


Yusef Salaam in 1989: Courtesy of Daily News/Getty Images

The Central Park Five in 2012 (l-r: Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray): Courtesy of Simon Luethi