Many recall the "wilding" incident in 1989, in which five non-white teenagers were convicted of raping and nearly killing a woman jogging in Central Park. But few paid attention when they were found innocent in 2002. Sarah Burns, daughter of documentarian Ken Burns, learned about the injustice while an intern for the firm filing a suit for the five against the NYPD. She brought the idea to her dad, and the two, along with Sarah's husband, David McMahon, tell the story in The Central Park Five. It's a departure for Burns: instead of recording history, he's trying to change it.
>> REVIEW: The Central Park Five by Gerald Peary <<
Do you remember how you responded to this story when it first came out? I was working on The Civil War at the time, and I felt outraged and thought, what is this city coming to? Like everyone, I bought the police story that these five kids were guilty. It wasn't hard to convince people at the time, because the city was rife with crime and racial tension and fear. But I also remember being outraged later, in 2002, when the truth came out and the five were exonerated and that got almost no coverage at all.
Do you think the media bears some responsibility for this miscarriage of justice? They depicted them as monsters, using terms from the days of Jim Crow and the lynch mobs like "wolf pack," and "black beast." That included liberal writers like Pete Hamill and Rob Herbert, who is black; they wrote terrible things. And then Pat Buchanan said that they should take the oldest of the five and hang him in Central Park in front of the other four to teach them a lesson.
In the same issue as your interview we are also running a profile of Damien Echols. What are the similarities and differences between this case and that of the West Memphis Three? Basically both are instances where society deems someone an "other" and treats them as such, contrary to the actual facts of the case. And you can also compare the Central Park Five to the Duke University lacrosse players, three rich white boys who were mildly inconvenienced by rape charges that proved to be false. In no time the prosecutor of that case was fired, disbarred, and put in jail, and the three ended up getting a huge settlement.
This is different from your previous films, a little like Errol Morris'sThe Thin Blue Line. I'm a great admirer of Errol Morris, but I can't say I was influenced by his film. Some of the techniques are similar, like the rapid editing. It's shorter than my other films, and there are no voiceover narrators. On the other hand, I didn't do the recreations. Still, this is the most journalistic of my films. Just the facts and no commentary.
Do you think that, likeThe Thin Blue Line, this film might help bring justice, forcing the NYPD to concede their mistake? From your lips to God's ear.
How about an Oscar? [Laughs.] From your lips to God's ear.