Co-Director Ken Burns on the New ‘Central Park Five’ Documentary
On the night of April 19, 1989, 28-year-old Trisha Meili was raped and beaten nearly to death while jogging through New York City’s Central Park. Five boys age 14-16—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam—who were allegedly harassing people in the park, or wilding, as police called it, were convicted of the crime after being bullied and manipulated by police into confessing. In 2002, convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to committing the crime alone, and DNA evidence matched his story. But by then, the boys had already served lengthy prison terms. In 2003, the wrongfully convicted men sued the city of New York, but the case has yet to be settled. The story is chronicled in the documentary The Central Park Five, directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and David McMahon.
What attracted me to the Central Park Five case initially was a lifelong interest in race as a central question in American history; it’s informed almost all the films I’ve made. But I was primarily attracted to it because of my daughter Sarah’s interest in it. She had written her final thesis at Yale on the representations of race in the media, and New York in the ’80s appeared more like Jim Crow America than a progressive 20th-century city. Many years later, when she decided to write the book The Central Park Five, I was privileged enough to see the first draft and knew by the third page that we had to make this into a film.
The case was about justice, fairness, class and poverty, fear, and the distinctions that people make between people who don’t look exactly like them. But race also played a huge role in this case.
There had been so many incidents in which people of color had met a terrible end at the hand of vigilantes or the police. And Al Sharpton had recently caused a media furor over the Tawana Brawley rape allegations. This was a hotbed of racial mistrust fueled in part by politicians like former mayor of New York City Ed Koch, who, when he was first elected, exploited the fears of white residents of Queens and Staten Island about crime. What you had was a racially divided city, so it was ripe for people to accept what, in retrospect, looks like an outrageous narrative. Instead of one man committing an assault, it became five wilding, bestial wolf-pack members who are, in fact, 14, 15, and 16 years old.
But I think at the heart of this is just a mistake.
I think the cops made up the wilding thing. The kids were all in the park because they had they day off from school on Thursday—it was Passover. Most of the kids didn’t know each other and they all went into the park. There were obviously some bad lots in there that rolled some drunks, hassled some joggers and bicyclists, and then a felony was committed—they severely beat a man that required hospitalization. Once they had discovered the body of Trisha Meili near dead, they rounded up many of the kids, including two of the Central Park Five. Fortunately, she survived and made a miraculous recovery.
Now it’s not unreasonable to think that given all the chaos in the park, by the end of the night when the cops stumbled upon this woman’s nearly dead body, they’d think that these boys might have had something to do with it and question them. The problem was that the Central Park Five was the best of the kids. They had no experience with the justice system and ended up trapped. The police clearly knew nothing about the case so they had to put words in their mouth—lie—and say, “well, someone else said you did it,” and turn it into this circular firing squad.
What we don’t show in one-hour procedurals like CSI or Law & Order is that the cops are allowed to do any trick they want to get them to confess. They can say, “we have your DNA on the victim.” So, they wore these children down. And why did they do it? Well, they had the crime of the century, and outside, the world was exploding with outrage because apparently it looks like five black wolf-pack-wilding kids have nearly killed a blonde, petite white woman. There were over 3,200 rapes that year in New York City, and none of them got nearly the attention that this one did.
Plus, the other main case that prosecutor Linda Fairstein has built her reputation on is the Preppie Murder case. We’re all interested in wealth and money, and that’s all about class in America. The people who have less wealth and money are expendable, and they can be sacrificed for this mistake, as these five young men were. We’re drawn to the fact that she is of a privileged class, as a rising associate at Salomon Brothers, and the outrage is increased because it could be our daughter or our friend.
The press, meanwhile, is so complicit in this. The police and the prosecutors clearly made lots of mistakes, and their professionalism should have allowed them to entertain an alternative narrative which would have freed these five innocent young men. But the press bought the narrative that the police and prosecutors handed them without questioning it. We have a chance to atone for this. Now that this has reached an apex of absurdity, that you can spend 13 years in jail, as Kharey Wise did, justice denied for all of them during that period, only to find out that they’re innocent, and then we bury that story, and then by the media burying that story, 10 years have elapsed, so those whose reputations can be damaged can get away with it.
It’s time for the press to say, “enough.” We have lived long enough with this. This is a scar not only on the accused’s lives and their family’s lives, but the city’s life. In respect for all of those institutions, we, as the fourth estate, demand closure. We’re not trying to say how much the city should settle for, but if Mayor Koch was right in saying this was the “crime of the century,” we need to put this to bed. It’s 10 years later and the city still can’t admit that they’ve made a mistake. That’s troubling.
Today, we have a stop-and-frisk law in New York that’s apparently cut down on crime but it’s really just racial profiling. I took this film to the Cannes Film Festival, and the French loved it and said to me, “America is very racist.” “Yes, it is,” I replied. “Could this happen again?” I said, “It just did. There’s a child named Trayvon Martin who would not be dead if his skin color wasn’t black. However, we have an African-American president. When you have an Algerian, Turkish, or West African president, you come to me. You segregate all of your other second-class citizens and pretend you have Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, but you do not. We have made the most progress, but in making the most progress, those groups tend to bump up against each other, and that causes friction. Periodically, that friction produces good things, like jazz music, and bad things, like what happened to the Central Park Five.”
The city of New York’s subpoena against us is an outrage. We have made the most journalistic film of our professional lives. It is so fair and straight, and without emotion. The subpoena is already an outrage because all it is is a further delaying tactic. They’re looking for inconsistencies. They’re going to say, “Kharey, you told the filmmakers you entered the park at 9:01 p.m. You told us 23 years ago that you entered at 9:02 p.m. Do you always lie?” The subpoena is an outrage because it’s an assault on the First Amendment and the shield laws of the state of New York. The subpoena is an outrage because the city claims that we’re advocating something. Prove what we’re advocating in this film. The fact that, as citizens looking back on this case, we have opinions about it?
And by taking out a full-page ad in the newspaper demanding the Central Park Five get executed, Donald Trump succeeded in getting New York state the death penalty. But Trump and fool … it’s redundant, isn’t it? And Patrick Buchanan, one of his comrades in arms, said, “If they took Kharey, a 16-year-old, and hung him in Central Park in front of the others, this would be a good deterrent.” And he’s innocent. Start being as outraged as I am.