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Justice Denied: 'The Central Park Five' Chronicles a Sensational Case

By Addie Morfoot

When filmmaker Ken Burns began helming The Central Park Five in 2008, he knew it wasn't going to be his standard fare. "On the surface this film is startlingly different from my previous films insofar as there is no narration and it has, at times, a very fast pace, which is consciously and deliberately different than what I've done before," Burns explains.

The documentary  chronicles the controversial 1989 Central Park Jogger rape case and the subsequent conviction of five black and Latino teenagers-Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam. Each man, who spent between 6 and 13 years in prison, claims that the verbal, taped confessions they made back in 1989 were coerced. In 2002 all convictions against the men were overturned due to new DNA evidence and a previously convicted murderer-rapist's confession.


Defendant Yusef Salaam walks into courthouse flanked by police officers. Photo courtesy of NY Daily News via Getty Images.


Arriving in theaters November 23 through Sundance Selects, The Central Park Five marks Burns' first theatrical release since 1985's Huey Long. This film also differs from the 26 documentaries Burns has made in his 35-year career because he shared helming duties with his daughter, and first time doc director, Sarah Burns, as well as her husband, David McMahon, who began working for Burns' Florentine Films as an assistant editor on Jazz in 2001.  "I just knew from the start that we could each bring something special to this project," Burns maintains. "Also, I've been doing this for a long time. I don't need sole credit every time I go out."

Not one to overlook an American historical event, Burns credits his daughter's nonfiction book, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (2011), about the five teenagers, their conviction and their eventual exoneration, for opening his eyes to the inner workings of the infamous rape case.  "I was an adult in my late 30s when the crime happened, and I bought it hook, line and sinker that these five men were guilty," Burns admits. "You had this numbing sense of, What's happened to New York City? Then when they were exonerated in 2002, the media paid very little attention. So I found myself struck by Sarah's book and what it uncovered. But still, fewer than 99 percent of people remember the case, and only 1 percent of that 99 percent remember that those boys were let go."

That 1 percent has grown significantly since the documentary's May premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, followed by screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival, AFI Fest and Doc NYC. "There is great frustration and outrage that these good kids have had their lives interrupted," Burns says.

In 2003, the five men filed a multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit against the City of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress.


Defendant Korey Wise with his lawyer Colin Moore. Photo courtesy of NY Daily News via Getty Images.

Although it has yet to hit theaters, The Central Park Five garnered national headlines in October when lawyers representing the City of New York subpoenaed the filmmakers for notes and outtakes in hopes of utilizing the unreleased material as supporting evidence in the still-pending, federal lawsuit case.

Burns and his co-directors are vigorously fighting the subpoena and counting on New York State's shield laws-designed to protect journalists from having to compromise their sources-from preventing them from releasing any of their footage. "We are journalists," Burns maintains. "We are allowed to investigate and discover things."

Beyond discovering new aspects of the case, Burns also learned that he is not essential to every Florentine Films' on-camera interview. "I've worked with co-directors and co-producers before and usually the reason that they conduct an interview is because I have to be somewhere else," he explains. "But I had the great privilege of being in the room and watching my daughter conduct an interview like she had been doing it all her life."

Sarah Burns interviewed Richardson, Santana, Wise and Salaam, and although Antron McCray declined to appear on camera, an audio-recorded interview with him is used throughout the film.


Defendant Antron McCray, with his mother. Photo courtesy of NY Daily News via Getty Images

While the film's directing trio admittedly didn't always see eye-to-eye, Ken Burns says that "most of the time we were in agreement, but of course you can't make a film without some friction. Luckily that was always handled professionally. No one was keeping score."

In addition to working with his daughter and son-in-law, Burns enlisted family friends and longtime co-collaborators, including cinematographer Buddy Squires and editor Michael Levine, to help construct the film. "There was something incredibly satisfying about making this film with family and friends because The Central Park Five is essentially a family drama," Burns maintains. "As you watch, the audience begins to understand the family dynamics of each of the five men."

While the film might not strike audiences as a Ken Burns documentary straight out of the gate, the director's fingerprints are all over it. From the use of archival footage, to the atmospheric cinematography to addressing  the issue of race, there is no doubt that The Central Park Five is a Florentine Films production. "Almost every one of my films from the last 35 years has dealt with the question of race in America," explains Burns. "Not because we have gone and looked for it, but because it seems to always be present when you are dealing with essential subjects about the United States, like the Civil War, baseball and jazz."

And the Central Park Jogger rape case.

Addie Morfoot writes about the film industry for Daily Variety. She has also written for The Los Angeles Times, Premiere and Marie Claire. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School.