Cannes 2012: Ken Burns’ ‘Central Park Five’ explores famous crime

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New York Mayor Ed Koch called it “the crime of the century.” TV newscasters talked angrily about perpetrators who “blazed a nighttime trail of terror” that culminated in the savage beating and rape of a jogger in Central Park on April 19, 1989. It was one of the biggest media stories of its day, and as it turns out, everything you remember about it is wrong.

That is the premise of “The Central Park Five,” a careful, thoughtful and devastating new documentary directed by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns that is premiering out of competition at Cannes.


Five black and Latino teenagers confessed to the rape of the white jogger and served prison sentences ranging from almost seven to 13 years. Compelling new evidence, including an ironclad confession by the actual rapist, led a New York Supreme Court justice to vacate the sentences of those teenagers in 2002. In plain English, these young men were completely innocent.

“The Central Park Five” does more than go over this territory. Using extensive interviews with the five men and their families, it shows exactly how this disturbing miscarriage of justice happened. It also reveals a theme that Ken Burns feels runs through many of his documentary projects: “When you look under the surface of American history, it’s always race.”

Burns is best known not for theatrical documentaries but for PBS series about subjects such as jazz, baseball and the Civil War. This project started not with him but with his daughter Sarah, who nine years ago had a summer internship with a Manhattan law firm that was handling a civil suit against the city for violation of the Central Park Five’s civil rights.

She met several of the young men and was “moved by their story and by what lovely people they were, not hardened or angry.” The story so stayed with her that Burns decided that instead of going to law school she would turn her interest into a book, also called “The Central Park Five” and published by Knopf in 2011.

While she was writing, her father and McMahon (her husband and a producer for her father) were, in Ken’s words, “looking over her shoulder” and getting drawn into the possibility of telling this story on film.

The co-directing credit for Sarah was, the senior Burns is sure to point out, “not parental largesse” but a reflection of the fact that “the three of us made this film co-equally.” Added McMahon, “three is a good number in the editing room, which is where films are made.”

Sarah Burns’ relationship with the five meant, she said, “they were all in. They wanted to tell their story.” Four talk on camera while the fifth, who has moved out of the state and lives under a different name (“a self-imposed witness protection plan,” said McMahon) is heard but not seen.

Harder to convince were relatives of the five, who experienced more of the public hatred and condemnation that resulted when, in Ken Burns’ words, “the media swallowed the story like an LSD trip.”

“They remained incredibly raw,” said McMahon, while his wife added: “The families were the ones on the outside, the ones who suffered, were ostracized and ignored. They were much more skeptical.”

Even more skeptical were the New York City police and the prosecutors from the district attorney’s office. No one was willing to go on camera and talk about the case.

“There’s a real omertà, a code of silence from prosecutors. They rarely speak, plus there was a good deal of hiding behind the civil suit,” which is ongoing, said Ken Burns.

The most fascinating aspect of “The Central Park Five” is its examination of how people can be psychologically manipulated into confessing to crimes they did not commit, a phenomenon also explored in another recent doc, “Scenes of a Crime.”

“People don’t understand this. It sounds irrational — they sit in the comfort of their living rooms and think, ‘I would never do that,’” said Sarah Burns. “But these were practically children, they were so young and so naive.” And they also were in the hands of experienced interrogators, people who were so good at their jobs, McMahon said, that a military interviewer told him: “I could get Mother Teresa to confess to anything.”

The “Central Park” co-directors are hoping for a theatrical release for their film before it goes to PBS in 2013 or 2014, in part to create publicity to put pressure on the city to settle the civil suit with the five.

“These are men with a life so interrupted, a gap we can’t imagine,” Ken Burns said. “My mother died when I was 11 and that hole was the defining moment in my life. It led to what I do for a living: I wake the dead. I would love it if some wise soul would whisper in the mayor’s ear, ‘Just settle.’ To have these men made whole again in some way would be great.”


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— Kenneth Turan, reporting from Cannes, France