Piercing the Veil: Ken Burns on The Central Park Five

The acclaimed documentarian on the 'Community' parody and why you should be wary of the police.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

When Central Park Five played at the Toronto International Film Festival, I got a one on one with legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, not knowing that he and his crew would be around again for an updated interview this month. Ariel Schudson got the latest from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, but we were able to cover largely different things. The documentary explains how prosecutors in New York utilized manipulative interrogation tactics to force confessions out of five teens for a rape conviction in 1989 and 1990. In 2002 a new confession by Matias Reyes and DNA evidence exonerated the Central Park Five. Before speaking with Ken Burns, I spoke with Sarah and David for background so Ken could speak about more specific issues. Despite the serious subject matter, I began of course with an important fanboy question.

CraveOnline: Very important first question. What did you think of the “Community” episode “Pillows and Blankets?”

Ken Burns: [Laughs] I thought it’s great. You know, since The Civil War came out in 1990, there have been so many spoofs. Jay Leno’s done three or four, “The Simpsons” have done three or four, there’ve been that. That was one I didn’t see until much later, and it was people who said, “Oh, you can’t believe how unbelievable this is.” It’s great. I’m taking it as the sincerest form of flattery.

How did you go about making a documentary where the prosecution side was not going to participate?

I think that they fully participated. That is to say that this is a historical documentary. We were able to find their statements. The film opens with a confession but it then is followed almost immediately by a statement of a police detective and others. So they are present throughout. I think that while it would’ve been interesting possibly to have their commentary, they chose not to and that’s their right, but I don't think it diminishes the story we told. I don't think it in any way affects the kind of narrative that we told. I think they would’ve said the same things that they said in the news conferences that we represented in the trial testimony.

When Antron McCray didn’t want to appear on camera, how did that impact the way you structured the Five’s story?

I think what it was is we spent some time obviously concerned about it but I also think that every film project has situations like this where your path through is not completely clear and you have to sort of improvise and you often have unintended positive results for that. I realize that if he – because of his own completely understandable self-interest of having escaped the specific gravity of this tragedy and had created a life on his own – he didn’t want that all blown up again, it’s completely understandable. That would afford us a chance to delve more deeply into the dynamics of his personal childhood situation because we would have to be relying on images of him as a young man and not just on camera, say, with Raymond. One of the more poignant subsidiary parallel narratives is the story of the relationship to his father, the deteriorating relationship between his father and his mother, their separation, his return and death and that becomes a kind of interesting parallel thing that I think is in part borne out. I mean, Antron has the first word once we begin to introduce and he has the last word, and he’s not seen on camera. That tells you that that was not a limitation but in fact an asset.

Is it an important subject to educate viewers about, like if a forced confession is still a tactic today, about how to handle a police investigation if you find yourself in that situation?

Absolutely. Absolutely and I think that what it does is the film has the possibility as it is released to influence that discussion. Can we begin a discussion where the police should turn on a camera the second they start interrogating rather than once they’ve gotten what they want and they’re now going to the confessions? Should that just be mandatory across the board? Craig Steven Wilder, the historian who appears in the film, at one point not in the film told us that even though his relatives were all cops, his mother had to sit him down and say, “Don’t do this and don’t do that and don’t do this. Your life is in danger.” Just that sense of what the etiquette is for a minority child with regard to a police force. I think that the film certainly has those kinds of lessons in mind but the largest one are the simple ones. We know after how many hours of interrogation they went through that had they just said, “I’m not waiving my Miranda rights. I want to see a lawyer now.” Their situation would be really, really different. A lot of that has to do with that horrible situation where in attempting to please figures of authority knowing what the result might be if you don’t, they actually permitted those authorities to run roughshod over those rights.

Or even to suspect if the cops tell the parent, “Hey, go home, take care of your family and come back later” that it’s actually a tactic to split the child up from the parent?

Let’s remember that more than two decades before this, the Supreme Court affirmed for all time the rights in the Miranda case that permits anyone taken into custody by the police to refuse to speak without that being an admission of guilt. And that they have the right to an attorney and that if they can’t afford one, it will be appointed. What happened is these are very clever detectives, and we want our detectives to be clever. Let us make no mistake about it, we want them to be able to use every trick in the book, but we also want an informed citizenry that is going to be able to say, “Time out. I need to have a lawyer.” And if any lawyer had walked into that room, they would’ve said, “Say nothing more.” The outcomes would’ve been very, very different so there’s a fundamental practical lesson out of all of this which goes back to Miranda and the rights guaranteed by our Constitution.

Was Central Park Five more of an investigation than some of the Ken Burns documentaries that are more of a portrait of an era or event?

No, I don't think so. I think all of these are narratives. All of these are stories and all of them therefore are obligated to obey the laws, the very complicated and very subtle laws of story. So yes, while this is the story of an investigation and the uncovering of truths, the structure of this is not dissimilar to other structures that have been employed. It’s just done I think in a new dynamic with new energy, with new kinds of relationships to music, with pacing, with the absence of narration, with the graphic things and all of that were in essence things that the story demanded, this particular story demanded, and each story has its own requirements but I don’t think it’s a different thing. I didn’t have to be a different kind of filmmaker to make this film with Sarah and Dave. It was just coming in and each day was a process of how you make it better and I don't know how that’s been different than any other day that we’ve made films on whatever film it is, Baseball. Sarah’s watched over the shoulder for many, many years.

David said prosecutor Linda Fairstein has said in the press that you don’t have all the facts. Do you have all the facts?

We have all the facts that need to fit in this film, to borrow the New York Times’ phrase.

That sounds more cryptic than having all the facts.

How could we know? God has all the facts and she’s not telling, okay? This we know. There are many things about that night that are unknown and may always be unknown, but this we know. That Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise did not rape Trisha Meili. Were not involved in that crime. This we know. That’s what our film is about.

So would you say you have all the same facts the prosecution has?

I believe so. I assume so. Perhaps there’ll be minor little things that will come out in depositions that will be different from the earlier depositions and testimony, but she writes fiction now so I don’t really know what she’s talking about.

Sarah and David also got into a great tangent with me about the glory of bad ‘80s video footage, how it chronicles all the different formats video took

Isn’t that great? And bad hair. Can we talk about that too?

Sure. What do you love about ‘80s video footage and hair?

Maybe bad hair was too judgmental for documentary filmmakers but there’s big and interesting hair. That’s a huge subtheme of this.

As someone who deals with a lot of different formats in your work, what was important about the actual stock of ‘80s footage, be it VHS or local news of the time?

That it was true. To me, finding an old photograph from the 1860s tucked in the bottom of a cardboard box at an archive of Robert E. Lee and finding that there’s actually footage of this correspondent on WNBC, the local news affiliate, talking about this are one and the same discovery and they have a truth. That old photograph might be fly spotted. It might be faded in the corner. One corner might be cut off and dog eared. The glass plate may have broken as it did on the final portrait of Lincoln cutting off his head, just in an eerie pre-figuring of what was going to happen to him a couple days later at Ford’s theater, or it’s got all of that sort of weird hash and noise that surviving ¾” videotape has today. It all is. And it just becomes kind of grist for our mill. It becomes the tools with which you can tell a story. And remember, I live in New Hampshire and we make maple syrup there and there’s 40 gallons of sap that go into every gallon of maple syrup. For everything that’s in this film, these two hours, there is 40 times more material that we have, aspects to the interview with Raymond and the others that have not been used, with all the other people, other news footage. Just the necessity to not boil, but kind of evaporate down in the process of editing to get where we are, so this is just all great stuff. Finding it, needing to reshoot stuff in Super 8 and giving us a stylistic consistency and also a sense of the immediacy of the experience that they were having.

Do you get a little thrill out of seeing the green dubover and tracking lines?

Of course, of course. I think it’s a huge thrill. There was a moment when film became very self-reflective in the 1960s and ‘70s. To see the Academy leader which we now use all the time, it’s ubiquitous, it’s not even funny anymore, or to see film running out with the spots or the way in which towards the end of a reel you get some sunspots and flares. Now things that filmmakers have spent the last three or four decades trying to design artificially, that used to be this thrilling new moment. So we never subscribe to that idea of revealing the slip, our slip is showing. But what we knew in this is that we would have to put our arm around a huge amount of divergent material. Old snapshots and super 8 and local TV news and modern HD stuff, we would have to add our own cinematography that would itself be shot in different media, we would have interviews that would have different context. All of that would have to then be marshaled together into whatever narrative we could shape.

Sarah also gave me some insight into how you balance all your projects by relying on producer teams. What’s the next one that’s closest to being completed?

We have now in postproduction, we’ve locked the picture but it’s a seven episode 14 hour series on the history of Theodore Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, a kind of intimate portrait of them, 14 hours long. So The Dust Bowl is this year, The Roosevelts will be ’14 and then Sarah, Dave and I are shooting a film biography of Jackie Robinson right now. We’re also involved in making a mammoth series on the history of the Vietnam War, both in production, both filming. Then we’re planning, in the early stages of writing a large multi-part history on the history of Country Music called I Can’t Stop Loving You. Then we have a biography of Ernest Hemingway far enough down the line that nobody’s waking up at 3 in the morning anxious about Ernest yet. I’m also serving as an executive producer on a series called The Emperor of All Maladies about the history of cancer.

Are you not directing The Emperor of all Maladies?

No, because that schedule ought to be daunting enough in and of itself, directing all those others, but I did ask not only to be the executive producer, sort of the final creative arbiter, but also that I would have the opportunity to interview Siddhartha Mukherjee, the author of the book, which I’ve done once and will have another chance at and be able to at least be heavily involved in the process of it. We have a really good team to do it.

Is Jackie Robinson a single feature or another multi-part?

No, I think it will be two parts. We’ve had a good number of films recently in the last 20 years that have been two parts, on Thomas Jefferson, on Lewis and Clark, on Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, Jack Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright. This sort of fits into that biographical mode. Jackie was the sort of moral center of our original 1994 18 ½ hour series on baseball. He deserves his own standalone treatment and we’ve been working very closely with his widow, Rachel, to tell that story which is one of the great and central stories of American history. This affords us an opportunity to tell a lot of stories that are not about his baseball life but how he got to that moment and what he did with his life in the unfortunately short time he was allowed after he left baseball.

Will Country Music be an intense music rights issue?

We did a history of Jazz that has 518 separate music cuts and 497 separate tunes that was an incredible, incredible organizational and mind boggling feat to clear all that stuff and we are anticipating the same sort of issues with country music, maybe only more so just as we’ve progressed in time. We’re in a much more interesting time when it comes to rights and publishing and clearances.

When you take on these subjects, do you have to find some aspect of it that people don’t know about it yet?

What is so interesting is that we’ve made films mostly about subjects about which there haven’t been big, large, comprehensive films. I don’t want to say definitive. Nothing’s ever definitive. With the exception of our film The War on the Second World War of which there were 1000 films made. I don't know how many times, and Dave would probably corroborate this, that we’ve been approached by veterans who said, “I served in the Pacific. I had no idea what was going on in Europe. Thank you for telling a story that did the European and Pacific and home front simultaneously.” And most of those documentaries would spend time in Europe, two or three episodes, and then go over to the Pacific and you never had a sense of they landed in Normandy and then there’s also marines in Saipan. This is what happened at home and then Saipan continues and then they couldn’t get out of the hedgerows in Normandy and this is how Saipan was resolved. Then this is what was happening at home and this is how we broke out of the hedgerows and headed towards Paris. If that happened simultaneously, you have a different view of the war. So the last film that we released, on Prohibition, what people have said uniformly as they said on every film we made is, “I never knew that.” It has nothing to do with trying to do that. It’s just that if you tell a complicated story, you will inevitably pierce the veil of conventional wisdom and a superficial retelling of stuff. If you think that Prohibition is gangsters and flappers then you will be pleasantly surprised. The violence and the sexiness of that is intact in our film, but there is a whole other political dimension to it that makes all of that violence and that sex even that much more interesting and that’s the “I didn’t know that factor.” It’s not something you go and look for. It’s something that is an inevitable byproduct of taking a long enough time to do a deep dive on the subject. We don’t know any other way to do a subject than to do a deep subject.

With Vietnam, are we at a point where a certain generation needs to be educated and reminded of that war?

You know, there was a really extraordinary series that came out also on public television called “Vietnam: A Television History.” It really wasn’t. It was done in the early ‘80s. Still, the shadow of that evacuation of the embassy in Saigon was something cast over that series in the sense that Vietnam was this first defeat, a ball and chain that we would carry around forever. If we’d made it a decade later in ’95 when America was the sole superpower, when we were not mired in a recession as we were in ’85, that we didn’t talk about Japan as the new emerging superpower. Japan in fact was experiencing stagflation, we had just won the first Gulf War, it was a very different film. Just as in 2005, if we’d made it then, it would’ve been in the middle of Afghanistan and Iraq and the parallels of Vietnam to that and the lee of 9/11, so by 2015 you hope that you can average out a lot of that and you can have and gain historical perspective, that the soldiers aren’t as old as the veterans from the Second World War were from their event so things are a little bit rawer. The war is something which we’ve tried to ignore. We’ve made some certain generalizations about how we treated the troops and what happened, but we haven’t really examined it. This affords us an opportunity I think for, as I said before, a deep dive and we already have collected an extraordinary number, something like 80 interviews so far. It’s an incredibly complex portrait of our country.

Follow Fred Topel on Twitter at @FredTopel.