The Central Park Five is a distinctive work amongst the things that Ken Burns has produced because it is in collaboration with his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon. While Ken is arguably the most famous of the trio, the film is based upon a best-selling book written by Sarah, and definitely reflects the fact that all three played an active role in creating it. The horrifying 1989 case of the rape of a jogger in Central Park and the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of five teenage boys for a crime that they did not commit has been skillfully documented in this incredible piece of cinema. After viewing, I was anxious to discuss the film with its creators and, more than anything, talk to some of the young men who had played such tragic roles in this unjust set of events. The roundtable discussion included the three filmmakers and three of the “Central Park Five” themselves, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana, and the interviews were conducted by a consortium of other journalists and myself. Word to the wise: go see this important film.
CraveOnline: Could you talk a little bit about what kind of footage you had of the Five to use in the film?
David McMahon: On this film, Korey Wise, one of the five, there was a real lack of documentary evidence of his pre-prison existence, no photographs from the family, no videos or anything like that. So at some point we got in touch with this guy who had lived in his building and was a couple years older and when Korey was about 14, this guy was a film student at CUNY film school and for his senior film project he was doing a remake of Truffaut’s 400 Blows and he cast Korey in the main role. So he shot this beautiful, well informed by all his studies at CUNY, 12-minute short inspired by 400 Blows with Korey as the star. And it was really well shot…
Sarah Burns: We thought we weren’t going to have anything of him [Korey], and we got this gorgeous amazing footage of him.
David McMahon: The folks who are putting out the DVD have agreed to allow us to put, it’s called No Place to Cry, they’ve allowed us to put the whole film [on it]. We found this guy years ago, he created his own 8mm home movie transfer machine that has no match anywhere, everyone in the archive business knows this guy, he works north of Boston, and we brought this to him and he was like, “This is amazing!” and he lovingly transferred it and color-corrected it.
On the beginnings of The Central Park Five film…
Sarah Burns: I first learned about this in 2003. I was too young at the time that it happened to be following the news, but I worked for a pair of civil rights lawyers who were involved with the civil suit (as yet unfiled at the time) as a college student and I became interested in the case and wrote my undergraduate thesis about it. Then I went back and wrote a book about it a couple of years later. So once I started working on the book it became really obvious to us that this deserved to have a film to tell the story and to give the Five an opportunity to be introduced to an audience in that way, to be able to speak for themselves, and for you to be able to meet them in a way that the book couldn’t really accomplish.
Yusef Salaam: One of the things that… I don’t know if it’s readily apparent in terms of the guys or anything, but just in general, whenever something like this happens, there’s always a great deal of uncertainty in speaking with anyone about the case, because you don’t know what they’re going to do with it. But the greatest thing that happened to us was that once we got to know Sarah, it was like “Oh cool, she’s a friend,” and we were with it. But it did take a bit of mulling it around and I think we made the best choice […] and it became a credit to us.
David McMahon: As Sarah’s husband I had a very close look at the book process and was with her, watching her go through it, respecting immensely how she was able to get five guys [to trust her]. There would seem to be no reason why they would trust anybody with their story after the way the media handled it the first time round and then also again in 2002 really, I mean you could find as many articles that said things like “not so fast on the Jogger Five” as you could saying “Finally they got it right,” which is a tragedy but it speaks to how even the media wanted to hang onto the original outcome and they remain invested in that and refuse to believe they had gotten it wrong […] It seemed obvious that putting [the Five] on screen and letting them do the talking was a good idea, and we found, after we interviewed them, that we didn’t even need to use one of the conventions that Ken has used for so long which is narration, we could just build a narrative around the Five telling their story. And we had hoped that the competing story of the police and prosecutors would be present but they elected not to participate.
CraveOnline: As far as the body of work that Ken Burns has been involved with, where do you see this fitting in and what is its role?
David McMahon: Well, I think [this film is] a conversation that we need to have immediately. Not just because justice continues to be denied but because we still have these same suspicions that lead to Trayvon Martin and Stop-and-Frisk overwhelming an entire city. So there is an urgency about having the conversation right away. It’s time for the facts to be out there. We didn’t come at this looking at the story like it was a “whodunit,” that was clear in 2002 when the District Attorney’s office said “Oops, we got this wrong.” This was a “How did this happen?” So it seemed like we immediately need to have a conversation about how five teenagers could confess to a crime of this nature, how everyone could accept that as fact, and how they could all be put away for an enormous part of their youth. In the other films where the majority of the people are gone and we can’t hear directly from them, those are subjects that you can go back every 10 or 15 years and revisit. I wouldn’t suggest anyone try to make The Civil War as a documentary again anytime soon, but [this story] hadn’t been told and so there was that urgency […] It’s not about the longview of where it fits in with historical documentary filmmaking its about changing a discussion that’s current.
CraveOnline: In regards to the false confessions that were a vital part of this case, could you speak to your experience in that realm, Yusef?
Yusef Salaam: One of the things that I always tell folks is that I was never on camera confessing or on paper confessing and a lot of times people put me on this different kind of pedestal, so to speak. But I have to remind them – look, it was just a matter of time. I mean the reality of this whole situation was, had they had enough time…
Yusef talks about recovering from what happened and day-to-day survival…
Yusef Salaam: I call it a process because, to be fair, anytime you try to go back and reconnect with anything that is traumatic it’s hard to get there […] I don’t know if I’ve ever really gone back and addressed it. Y’know no one ever came to us when we came back from prison and said, “You guys probably have PTSD, you guys are going to be maimed for life.” We have indelible scars. It just so happens that sometimes it’s easier to say, “Let me try to forget in order to move forward,” because if you don’t, it becomes a cancer that can grow into something that will kill you. A lot of folks say to me, “I would be angry! I would be mad as hell!” But what would that get me? I might want to bomb a church, I might want to blow up a police department, the reality is, I can’t go to war with the army, you see what I’m saying? Part of it is also saying, “I have a family, and I have a responsibility to be a positive influence on that life. […] [But] I’m always under a cloak of fear. Whenever I apply to a new job, meet new folks, any of that stuff. If people see me on the street and they stare too long, I’m never ever saying to myself: “They think I’m handsome.” I’m always saying to myself, “Did they see an article about me? Or did they see the newspaper?” Back in 1989, there were times when we had to run home or we had to run to the courthouse or we had to run to the train station just to get away from folks who were chasing us. So my reality is a little bit different than what it appears. […] I made this tragedy look easy to deal with, but in reality, the way that I’ve been able to deal with it has been tremendously through this film.
CraveOnline: I noticed that the film really looks at how this case divided the city across gender and race lines, which I found extraordinarily painful. Could you speak to this aspect of the film and/or personal experience at the time?
Yusef Salaam: What was weird about this whole situation was that some of the truths that my mother had been telling me hadn’t been realized until this thing happened. So for instance, my mother would say to me, “If the police come, don’t open the door, if your parents aren’t here, don’t open the door. Let them break the door down.” We were like, “But [the police] are our friends, what do you mean don’t open the door? That’s something that you should do.” And she came from a different reality. My mother was raised in the South and there were times when she had to run as a child to the house because the Klan was coming, or they heard that the Klan was in the area or something like that, so she was giving us a reality that we hadn’t even experienced. […] I don’t even known how I was able to synthesize the calm, so to speak, in the storm [of the courthouse picket lines and media]. I have a different spin on it.
CraveOnline: I understand that the outtakes of the film are now being subpoenaed by the city of New York. Could you discuss this situation briefly?
Ken Burns: Well, we’re in the middle of it, I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but we’re not going to honor the subpoena as it is. We’ll have to go to court, I’ll let a judge tell me what I have to do, not the city of New York. It’s clearly a cynical delaying tactic in a civil suit that’s already been delayed nearly a decade. I mean, these guys suffered in an obvious tragedy for 13 years, justice denied, and now it’s 10 more years of justice delayed which, we know, is justice denied. […] You know what, race is a huge part of this story but at the end it’s a universal story about human failing, that is to say, all of us at this table make mistakes and you either own up to your mistakes or you don’t, as the journalist Jim Dwyer says in the film. And that’s what this is. This is a 13-year-tragedy that has now become an almost 23-year-old tragedy because there are some cops and some ADAs that can’t stand admitting that they were wrong because of what it might do to their careers or their reputations. Never mind that they stole the identities, the lives, of five kids, now men, who are clearly, through the polygraph that cinema is, honorable human beings.
Raymond Santana talks about getting involved in the project…
Raymond Santana: Our trust was limited. But we’d met Sarah back in 2003 and she wanted to do a paper on us. So there was no harm. So then she came back a little later and said she wanted to do a book, but nobody else asked us to do a book and by that time our relationship was already established with Sarah. There was trust. We knew that she was going to present the facts the way they were, she wasn’t going to lie, wasn’t going to twist anything around. We never knew her dad was Ken Burns. It wasn’t until later on when she said, “You know, my dad would like to do a movie,” and we were like, “Who’s your dad?” She was like, “Ken Burns,” and we were like, “Who’s Ken Burns?” but because of our relationship with Sarah we had that trust that we knew the story was going to be told right.
Ken Burns talks about how The Central Park Five works thematically with the rest of his work…
Ken Burns: This is, literally, the most journalistic of all of our films. It’s just the facts. There’s no narration, I don’t think there’s a single adjective except for “brutally” with regard to the rape in the printed titles that we wrote. […] In many ways it’s the same film. Almost every film that we’ve done has touched on or come up against the question of race in America. The Civil War wouldn’t have happened without 4 million Americans being owned by other Americans, the finest moment in baseball is when Jackie Robinson starts playing on April 15, 1947, the only art form that Americans have created is created by a community that has the experience of being unfree in a supposedly free land – that’s jazz music. I’ve done biographies of Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion […] think about all that stuff. Its just coded words for race. It’s there. It’s in this case. The language of a liberal, progressive city in the late twentieth century, the language of the ‘wolfpack’ and the ‘wilding’ is the language of Jim Crow South. Ecclesiastes said what has been, will be again. What has been done, will be done again. There’s nothing new under the sun. That basically says that human nature never changes. So you can expect the present to resonate with the past and the past to resonate with the present […] You can take a headline as we do in the film, a Jim Crow newspaper headline about negro brutes, and it doesn’t look very different from the marauding band of wolfpack, separated by almost a century and by a thousand miles between the liberal Northeast and the supposedly conservative South.
How things have changed since the case and what things could still use work…
Ken Burns: Things have changed. We have an African American president, we have made more progress than any other country but part of that progress is the movement of groups that gets exploited by other groups in whose interest it is to keep people apart and so we play on fears that are religious, we play on fears that are racial, we play on fears that are sexual, we play on lots of fears just to keep people apart when most of us share the same self interest. Progress has been made, not enough progress has been made. Could this happen again? Yes, it’s happening every day in America. Someone, usually because of color, is charged for the crime they did not do, confessions are coerced all the time because of the techniques and pressures that the cops are able to do, should we record things from the very beginning when they walk into the [police] station house? You bet. There’s a lot of things we can do. The media was hugely complicit in this story, they took this hook, line and sinker and it now seems like it’s the media’s turn to amplify what we’ve said and go in and look. There’s a lot of great stories embedded in this that need the light of day. You know, I’d like to go in and make an entire film on April 17th, two days before, when they had Matias Reyes and then didn’t find him. There’s something funny about that, going on there, that I need to know more about.
CraveOnline: I’m curious in a case that was as significantly media-heavy as this one was, how did you go about selecting the footage to be used for the film itself?
Ken Burns: (laughs) Okay. So I live in New Hampshire. Sarah was born in New Hampshire. David McMahon has spent a lot of time working for me and courting my daughter in New Hampshire (they now live in Brooklyn), but we make maple syrup. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, and that is very much like documentary filmmaking. This is what we do for a living is this horrific triage of taking hours and hours and hours of material, sometimes 40 times the amount of the actual film and winnowing it down into something that’s a story. Even at something that we call the rough assembly, it was something like 3 ½ - 4 hours long and it was good. I mean, you’d never subject somebody to that long in one sitting, but we knew that we wanted this to be feature length. Our cutting room floor is filled with more painful stuff than you could possibly imagine […] I remember asking Shelby Foote, a historian and writer about the Civil War, about U.S. Grant and he said he had “four o’clock in the morning courage.” Sometimes I think that when we’re making documentary films, we have to have a kind of four o’clock in the morning courage where you wake up thinking, “Oh my god, what about this scene, what about that scene, how will we get that in, what works?” and this is why it takes years to craft these films, we want to digest the material. We’re not turning out a widget, we’re struggling to do justice to them.
Raymond Santana talks about recent cases like Trayvon Martin and other race-related cases of injustice…
Raymond Santana: It shows how far we’ve come. You know, as people we can still judge a person on what he wears. We can just assume that just because he’s black and he has on a hoodie that he’s looking to commit a crime. And then have the police say, ‘Don’t pursue him, leave him alone,’ and you’re still going to pursue him and then he dies. It says a whole lot. We’ve taken great steps to move forward, but we haven’t really gone anywhere.