Ken Burns Brings ‘Central Park Five’ to Light
April 15, 2013
After a limited release last year, The Central Park Five, Ken Burns’ two-hour documentary about the 1989 New York City jogger case, reaches a wider audience when it premieres on PBS on Tuesday at 9 ET/PT.
Since its release last spring, Burns and his co-producers, daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, as well as the five men whose convictions in the case were vacated, have traveled the country talking about the film and the as-yet-unsettled $250 million civil suit they brought against the City of New York in 2003.
The film has “taken on a life of its own,” says Sarah. “We did our festival run, we did our theatrical release and now we’re leading up to our broadcast, but we’re also getting so many requests from law schools, high schools, colleges, community organizations, and churches who feel like they have a constituency that needs to know this story.”
The film, unlike anything else film historian Ken Burns has ever produced, documents what happened after a 28-year-old woman was found near death after being raped and beaten in Central Park.
One Latino and four African-American teenagers were arrested, confessed under duress and were convicted. The five served between seven and 13 years in prison. Their convictions were vacated after Matias Reyes, an imprisoned serial rapist, confessed in 2002, and DNA evidence linked him, and only him, to the crime.
One of the exonerated men is Yusef Salaam, now 39. He was 15 when he was arrested, spent nearly seven years in prison and was released when he was 23. He says the film has given him and the other men “an opportunity, in a sense, to regain our humanity. It gives us our lives back in a way, and gives us an opportunity to heal.”
The Central Park Five have spent a lot of time in the past year speaking at schools and other venues where the film had been shown. Salaam says he’s been touched by the public’s reaction. “When we go around speaking, most of the time we’re greeted with standing ovations, we’re greeted with warm welcomes,” even from people who decades ago believed the men were guilty.
“These are guys, who when they were teenagers, were faced with crowds of people who hated them, and suddenly now they’re telling their story and finding support and love from people. It’s really gratifying,” Sarah says. “And that’s all we hope for — that people would learn something from this story in hopes we can prevent something like this from happening again, and to start a conversation about how this happened and why.”
The Central Park Five evokes the racial tensions in New York in the late 1980s, and tracks the crime, the sensational media coverage, the police and detectives’ determination to get a conviction, the public outcry for justice, and the wrongful convictions.
“I hope people take away from this film that this truly was a travesty of justice and that this is not an isolated case,” Salaam says. “The Central Park Jogger case is a case that a lot of people know about because it was all over the news, but this is something that people are finding out happens all the time. And (if) this happened to us, how many other individuals did this happen to in the same way?”
Burns says he and others involved in making the film have developed a renewed sense of outrage because of the drawn-out lawsuit. Resolution, says Burns, whose recent projects have included 2012’s The Dust Bowl, 2011’s Prohibition and 2009’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, “just means closure for everybody. They get a sense of completion. We have absolutely no interest in the outcome. We just want there to be an outcome.”
Salaam says he has dealt with the anger and bitterness, but believes resolution of the lawsuit is necessary for the five men to truly get their lives back. “It’s a run-on sentence,” he says. “There needs to be a period placed at the end for there to be a true moving-on.”
(Earlier this year, New York’s City Council passed a non-binding resolution urging a settlement; in response, city attorneys said in a statement the federal suit was not about guilt, but required that police and prosecutors “acted with malice and wrongdoing. They did not.”)
Though still consumed by publicity surrounding The Central Park Five, Ken Burns and his production company have completed a seven-part, 14-hour history of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, due next year on PBS. A film on baseball great Jackie Robinson — also subject of the new theatrical hit 42 — is scheduled for release in early 2016. And shooting is winding down on a mammoth history of the war in Vietnam, also due in 2016, while research and preliminary shooting have begun on a history of country music.