Ken Burns Seeks Justice For ‘The Central Park Five’

The legendary documentarian grapples with the age-old issue of race with a foray into recent history.

Yusef Salaam walks into court in the film The Central Park Five
Yusef Salaam, a defendant who would come to be known as one of the Central Park Five, walks into court during a scene from The Central Park Five. (Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Selects)
Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

In his exhaustive efforts as—arguably—America’s foremost chronicler of the country’s history, documentary director Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, Prohibition) has given plenty of thought to the question of race in American culture. While he doesn’t presume to have the answers on how to bridge the ongoing divide, he can pinpoint why racial disparity endures as an issue in America.
 
“We're the rare country that knows exactly when we were founded, and we know exactly why we were founded,” Burns tells TakePart. “It comes down to one sentence, which is the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ I don’t have to finish the sentence because I can tell you that the author of that sentence owned other human beings as he wrote that sentence, and that set in motion an American narrative that is constantly dealing with race.”
 
Burns did not shy away from race in his famed PBS documentaries The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. Yet his most recent film, The Central Park Five, is different. For one thing, it will debut in theaters this week before it airs on television, and secondly because it recounts a far less-distant past than much of his previous work.

MORE: ‘Booker’s Place’: Where an American Black Man Paid for Telling the Truth

For The Central Park Five, Burns and codirectors Sarah Burns and David McMahon train their lens on the notorious 1989 case of the “Central Park Jogger,” in which four African-American teens and a Hispanic teen were tried and convicted of the rape and assault of a 28-year-old caucasian investment banker. No evidence placed the youths in the vicinity of the crime—except for confessions that, as demonstrated in the film, were indisputably coerced by a police department that was looking for a swift resolution.

What the police saw as an expedient way to find five suspects who fit a certain racial profile, and the subsequent sensationalism that surrounded the case in the press, Burns saw as a tale as old as time.
 
“The language that was used by the progressive newspapers in New York was the language of the Jim Crow newspapers in the South at lynching time,” says Burns, who was drawn in by the work his daughter Sarah had started when penning a book about the trial. “That was one of the things that compelled us—that still we struggle to heal divisions based on race.”

Sadly, The Central Park Five shows how the quartet of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Khorey Wise paid a greater price than most as a result of that division. All five spent their formative years from their teens through their twenties in maximum security and were only released when the real culprit came forward.

“As a nation, as states, as cities, as communities, as families and individuals, we have to wrestle with racism that’s embedded in each one of us.”

As tragic and infuriating as their case is, it also serves as a catalyst for conversation that many Americans are still reluctant to have, one that Burns has been able to open up to the rest of the world as he’s traveled the festival circuit with Central Park Five.
 
“I went to the Cannes Film Festival where the French press was delighted to find out that I agreed that America was a racist country. Then they said, ‘Could this happen again?’ And I said, ‘It just did. Trayvon Martin is a young black man who’s now dead,’ ” says Burns.

Noting the election of an African-American president in his home country, before an Algerian or West African has been considered for the top job in France, Burns quickly adds, “We have [also] made more progress than anyone else, but in the making of that progress, you create frictions between groups. You give opportunities for people who like to exploit those frictions; so we’re constantly dealing with it, and we deal with it at many levels—as a nation, as states, as cities, as communities, but as families and individuals, and we have to wrestle with racism that’s embedded in each one of us.”

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