At 9PM tonight, PBS will air Central Park Five, co-directed by Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah Burns. An adaptation of Sarah Burns’ book The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes, Central Park Five is a searing examination of the 1989 sexual assault on Trisha Meili, a crime for which five young men, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam were convicted after coercive interrogations and wrongfully imprisoned. Though their convictions were vacated in 2002 after Matias Reyes confessed to the attack on Meili, a civil suit filed by a number of the men in 2003 is still pending, the district attorney in the case, Elizabeth Lederer, still works for the city of New York, and the city attempted to subpoena outtakes and additional footage from the Burns’ film, an effort that was just recently blocked by a judge.
I spoke at length with Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and Raymond Santana, one of the Central Park Five, in Pasadena in January. We discussed the role of the media in the case, the impact of courtroom sketches, and why Lederer, who the Burns’ believe had grave doubts about the prosecution, has never spoken about her involvement in the case. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I think the movie is tremendous, and it’s wonderful to have all of you here. I wanted to start out by asking, one of the things that really struck me about the documentary that I’m not sure is completely explicit, but that really came across to me, was that New York in this time was a place that was not really safe for women or for young men of color, and this was a case that ended up pitting these two populations that were being poorly served against each other. I wasn’t sure if that was something you wanted to pull out explicitly or that was more interesting to have as an implicit thread.
Ken Burns: We took a lot, we made a lot of narrative decisions that were at least superficially different than other movies that we’d made, so in fact we were trusting that a lot of things would have to remain implicit and not explicit. Explicit could be explicated by narrative. And in this case what we felt would just contain as much of the story as possible, filled with all of its excruciating paradoxes and contradictions. Not the least of it is that. I think that’s a really good point, that the most vulnerable are in some ways the symbolic antagonists in this invented drama.
Sarah Burns: I think Craig Steven Wilder does a good job of giving you at least some sense of that, of the vulnerability of minority teenaged boys especially, as the people who were most likely to be victims of the crime that people were seeing and were concerned about. And that was something that was forgotten. That’s sort of an important thing to understand, both that that was happening, and the way the media was covering not only this case but the time in general was such that we were seeing those people who were most likely to be victims as the source of our problems and not the victims of them.