The new Ken Burns documentary “The Central Park Five” got its start as a book written by his daughter, Sarah Burns.
The younger Burns was just a child when the violent 1989 Central Park jogger case made national news and raised the frightening specter of teenagers roaming through the park and attacking bicyclists and pedestrians.
Sarah Burns learned about the case in 2003 while working as an intern for Jonathan Moore, one of the attorneys representing the five young men wrongfully convicted of the jogger’s rape and assault. Burns wrote her undergraduate thesis on the case, and followed it with a book titled “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding.” But the project wasn’t over.
Last year saw the release of the acclaimed documentary “The Central Park Five,” which Burns, 30, co-directed with her father and her husband, David McMahon, 36.
“I couldn’t let go of this story,” Burns said. “I was so curious about it.”
‘The Central Park Five’
WHAT: a Ken Burns documentary about 1989 Central Park jogger case
WHERE: University at Albany’s Page Hall, 135 Western Ave., Albany
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday
MORE INFO: www.albany.edu/writers-inst/
If you can’t make it to the New York State Writers Institute screening of “The Central Park Five,” you can still catch the film. It will air at 9 p.m. on PBS on April 16, and be released on DVD on April 23.
The film will screen at 7 p.m. on Friday, at the University at Albany’s Page Hall, 135 Western Ave., as part of the New York State Writers Institute’s Justice & Multiculturalism in the 21st Century Film Series. A question-and-answer session with Sarah Burns and McMahon will follow the screening.
“The Central Park Five” has been widely praised, and was named Best Nonfiction Film at the 2012 New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
The case began unfolding on April 20, 1989, when the body of a woman who had been raped and badly beaten was discovered in New York City’s Central Park. Within days, five black and Hispanic teens from Harlem — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam — had confessed to her rape and beating following hours of aggressive interrogation.
The case tapped into the city’s simmering racial tensions and concerns about violence, resulting in sensational stories suggesting that the teens had been part of a gang that assaulted strangers, an activity that became known as “wilding.”
The teens ended up being tried as adults and serving their full sentences, which ranged from six to 13 years. But the case wasn’t over. In 2002, a serial rapist named Matias Reyes confessed and DNA evidence linked him to the crime. At the time, Reyes was already a convicted rapist and murderer, serving a life sentence for other crimes.
“The Central Park Five” features interviews with the young men wrongfully convicted in the case, as well as their families and former New York City mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins.
“We had this amazing opportunity to interview the Central Park five and get to know them as individuals,” Sarah Burns said.
Burns and McMahon noted that although the five teens were convicted in criminal court and the court of public opinion, the case was never as air-tight as it was made out to be. There was a lack of physical evidence connecting the teens to the crime, no eyewitness accounts and inconsistent and inaccurate confessions. Burns said that the case made her curious about “false confessions and how they happen.”
Ken Burns is the documentarian behind the highly regarded “Baseball” and “The Civil War.”
But “The Central Park Five” is not a typical Ken Burns film. It’s smaller in scope, and lacks the voice-over narration typical of his work.
In a press release about the film, Ken Burns described “The Central Park Five” as a “radical departure for me as a filmmaker. Eschewing narration, 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.”
McMahon said that “The Central Park Five” really isn’t as far removed from Ken Burns’ previous work as it might appear. He said the film asks questions about race in America, as many of Burns’ films do.
The Central Park jogger story broke, McMahon said, in a very competitive newspaper market, “in the midst of the tabloid wars, and they were happy to spill this sensational story all over the front pages.” What the media neglected to do, he said, was question the official police version of events, and learn more about the teenagers accused of the violent crime.
“There was a quick rush to judgment to sell newspapers,” McMahon said. “There was no effort to find out who these guys were.” The media “needs to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to all stories,” he said. Instead, “there was this animal imagery they conjured up in their descriptions that contributed to a climate where these guys couldn’t have a fair trial.”
Sarah Burns said the response to “The Central Park Five” has been “extraordinary.” She said the film’s subjects have attended some of the screenings, and that members of the audience have apologized for having believed the stories about their culpability.
“It’s really healing for everyone,” she said.
Burns and McMahon live in Brooklyn. Ken Burns’ studio is based in Walpole, N.H.