Central Park Five, the latest documentary directed by Ken Burns with his long-term collaborator David McMahon and Burns’ daughter Sarah, is a searing portrait of how detectives and prosecutors coerced confessions out of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Kharey Wise, which also implicated Yusef Salaam, in the 1989 rape and assault of Trisha Meili. McCray, Richardson, Wise, Salaam, and Santana, who I had the privilege to meet and speak with yesterday, had their convictions vacated in 2002. Matias Reyes, whose DNA has been matched to that found on Meili’s body (there were no DNA matches between Meili and the Five), has confessed to the crime. In other words, the facts of the coercions, the false convictions, and the true perpetrator are not controversial, even if the city of New York has yet to settle a civil suit filed by the Five. So it was disappointing to hear from Burns yesterday at the Television Critics Association press tour that some of his regular and long-term funders had been afraid to back the project.
“A good deal of the money also came from the Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation we had not had any relation with before, but who is willing to take on a sizable part of our budget in large part because so many others had avoided what they feared would be too controversial aspects of this story,” he explained in his introduction to the film.
Burns refused to name names, and was gracious about the fact that underwriters always have a lot of choices, even from among his slate of projects, but he didn’t mince words about the funders who expressed anxieties about the subject material or the tone of the film.
“I did not begrudge sponsors. They’re not obligated,” he explained. “We normally sort of work on a ten year plan. We have a film on the history of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Sarah and Dave and I are working a film on Jackie Robinson. Lynn Novick, who’s been here before, and Sarah Botstein and I are in the middle of a massive series on the history of the Vietnam War. Dayton Duncan, who we were here with last summer on The Dust Bowl, and I are in the middle of researching and beginning to write a history of country music. We have a biography planned of Ernest Hemingway. All of those things are part of it. And underwriters have had a chance to sort of cherry-pick and choose what they want to do. And these are tough times for underwriting. And I think particularly for some, the notion of not knowing what the final product would look like, it was something that prudence suggested they stay away of, which is sad.”
But Burns also offered a rebuke to the idea that his other movies are sentimental or uncontroversial—or unconcerned with racial justice in the way Central Park Five is.
“There are aspects…in almost all the films in which we’ve been unwilling, in fact unable, to present a comfortable, sentimental or nostalgic version of American history,” he said. “And more often than not, scratching the surface of American history, we’ve dealt with race and this is certainly about that. I think it speaks volumes, this story, about America and our tortured racial history.”
The coverage of the Central Park Fives’ exoneration wasn’t nearly as loud as the media calls, in some cases, for them to be literally hung when New Yorkers were convinced they were guilty. Central Park Five is an opportunity to correct that balance, and to give Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam back some of their dignity and names, some of the slim recompense available to them, given that the years they lost to prison are unrecoverable. It also could help shift the sentiment on their civil suit against the city, which also cannot restore those years, but could give the Five some compensation for lost earnings and lost time to develop their careers. It’s a real shame that any funder would be more willing to back an argument about race in history when the victims of cruelty aren’t available to be helped, than to support the funding of a project about a shameful event of recent memory that could do some substantive good today.