National Press Club

Filmmaker gives account of false arrest in "Central Park 5," becomes 'card-carrying journalist'

April 13, 2013 | By Richard Lee | RF-lee@earthlink.net

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns discusses his new film, "Justice and The Central Park Five," at a National Press Club Luncheon, April 12, 2013

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns discusses his new film, "Justice and The Central Park Five," at a National Press Club Luncheon, April 12, 2013

Photo/Image: Al Teich

Ken Burns' latest documentary for the Public Broadcasting System turned out to be a family undertaking for him, he told a National Press Club Luncheon audience April 12.

Burns, celebrated for previous in-depth examinations of the Civil War, baseball, jazz, and prohibition, among other subjects, said he was “inspired” and “angered” by daughter Sarah’s 2011 book, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, and the years of research that produced it.

The book recounts the events surrounding the brutal beating and rape of a young white woman, Trisha Meili, an investment banker and jogger, who was left for dead by her assailant in Central Park in April 1989. The public outrage and steady barrage of sensational headlines in tabloid newspapers resulted in the arrest, forced confessions and the convictions of five black and Latino teenagers -— Antron McCrary, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Ramond Santana and Korey Wise — for a crime they did not commit.

“This film was born in Sarah’s outrage,” Burns said. “I was living in New Hamsphire and commuting to New York, at the time of the original event. I was editing the Civil War documentary, and like everybody else I was wringing my hands and asking, ‘How could this terrible thing happen? How could this injustice have taken place?’ I accepted the police and prosecutors’ version of what happened that night, hook, line and sinker.”

The film, two hours long, is a detailed, powerful and often painful retelling of what then-New York Mayor Ed Koch called “the crime of the century.” The men and their families are interviewed, along with footage of lawyers, journalists, and public figures of the time. It paints a sorry picture of a crime-besieged city and a fearful, racially-polarized populace.

Two of the victims -— Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana -- along with Ken and Sarah Burns, were on hand for the April 11 preview showing at the Press Club The film will be seen on PBS on April 16. It was co-directed by Burns’ son-in-law and longtime collaborator, David McMahon.

Funding the film, due to its grim subject, had “very dicey aspects to it,” Burns said. He singled out “Atlantic Philanthropies” for providing “upwards of 75 percent of our entire budget,” and once again lauded PBS, “our longtime supporter.” Among Burns’ guests on the dais was WETA CEO Sharon Percy Rockefeller.

The five men wrongly depicted as criminals spent years behind bars before the real perpetrator of the crime, Matias Reyes, a murderer and serial rapist, came forward and confessed that he alone attacked the jogger. Then-District Attorney Robert Morgenthau withdrew all charges but stopped short of declaring the Central Park Five innocent.

The men sued police and prosecutors for $250 million, but the lawsuit has languished for a decade, with no resolution in sight.

“The tactics of the city have been, I believe, reprehensible in the extreme,” Burns said.

Police and prosecutors refused to cooperate with the documentary, Burns said. “We begged them, but they wouldn’t,” he said. They have issued no apology, and, according to Burns, seem indifferent to what “The Central Park Five” have endured, and the problems some have faced in readjusting to life after so much jail time.

“Where was the skepticism that most journalists have?” Burns asked. “This was a gross failure on their part. These young boys came from good, stable, middle-class families. They had never been in trouble before. They did not know what was going on. They were petrified. They didn’t know their rights. They had their lives blasted.”

They survived what Burns called “this descent into a hell that Kafka or Dante could not imagine.”

They are now, Burns said, “a band of brothers, who I think represent in some ways the best of us. They had a kind of heroic forbearance in the face of unbelievable odds, who exhibit a startling lack of bitterness and anger.”

Burns, for all his laurels, resists being called an actual historian, and is not sure he is a journalist, either. But, at the end of the Luncheon, NPC President Angela Greiling Keane presented him with a white card, signifying his new status as honorary Press Club member. It was also his eighth appearance as speaker. “I guess I’m a card-carrying journalist,” he responded, with a bright smile. “Thank you.”