Burns' documentary exposes past injustice

by Gavin Huang | 1/21/13 11:00pm

As the lights dimmed on a packed Spaulding Auditorium for the Saturday night showing of "The Central Park Five" (2012), a relaxed Ken Burns in a gray sweater and khaki pants walked onstage and told the audience something rather unexpected.

"I hope this is not a film that you will enjoy," the Emmy Award-winning director said. "I hope you will share the same outrage I felt when I first came across this story."

The story behind "The Central Park Five" landed on Burns' desk through his daughter Sarah, who along with her husband David McMahon is a co-director. After writing a book stemming from her Yale University undergraduate thesis on the subject, Burns decided the story would make a good documentary.

"Central Park Five" uncovers an indictment on a justice system gone awry. The first crime in this tragic tale is the heinous rape of a jogger in New York City's Central Park, a place then-Mayor Ed Koch called "sacred." The second crime was the wrongful conviction of five teenagers who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The sense of moral outrage from audience members is contagious. Watching the interrogation videos of these five teenagers as they are forced to confess to a crime they did not commit, viewers cannot help but wonder how this atrocity could have happened. In one painful scene, victim Kharey Wise, who had a learning disability, was seated alone in a classroom as prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer badgered him with questions for hours on end. You can feel his exhaustion and frustration as he slowly slinks down in his chair.

"The kids were vulnerable because they were good kids," Ken Burns said to the audience. "They wanted to cooperate so they could go home."

Burns, who is known for his often heavy historical epics, tackles this ugly chapter in New York City's history with a contemporary fast-paced edginess. The cinematic backdrop is a schizophrenic city in the 1980s that is segregated between the nouveau riche and the ultra-poor. Scenes of Harlem, vandalized subway cars and newspaper headlines move to the pace of contemporary hip-hop music, depicting a society in near collapse at the mercy of HIV/AIDS, crack cocaine, violence and poverty.

Still, the film maintains a certain Burnsian quality: it never moves past history. The juicy details of the ongoing civil lawsuit filed by the five teens against the city and the obstacles that Burns encountered while trying to get the police to comment are barely mentioned.

Burns said that the film's outtakes have recently been subpoenaed by the city, after which the directors lawyered up and "told [the city] where they could stick that subpoena."

The bold activist in Burns is hidden behind his facade of being a foremost archival historian. Burns' attempts to get former prosecutors to speak about the case and their "nothing to see here" responses are as interesting and revealing as the Central Park story itself, but Burns remains dutiful to history and it is through this that we find Burns' passion for the present.

"This is part of our job description," he said. "We know the ways the past resonates with the present."

Burns' treatment of the media is especially scathing. To him, the media was just as complicit in the wrongful conviction as the police were. His appropriation of old footage has a polygraph-like feel, revealing cultural prejudices in a New York desperate for quick solutions to its social ills. Juxtaposed with the social insight of contemporary historians, the hyped headlines about teens "wilding" and having fun at the expense of others in the 1980s now seem absurd.

"The Central Park Five" wants us to question ourselves. It wants us to own up to our past mistakes and understand the cultural and institutional factors that resulted in this tragedy, which the New York Police Department and Manhattan District Attorney's office are still unwilling to do, Burns said.

"We carry this burden," Burns said. "Our original sin as Americans is that we brag about our exceptionalism."

"The Central Park Five" powerfully displays how the past illuminates our present. The New York City it portrays appears different from the city we know today, but history tends to repeat itself. As the police department's stop-and-frisk practice and shooting victims Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell have shown, the documentary's focus on mass hysteria, poverty and race are, unfortunately, still relevant today.

The subjects of the film have now dedicated themselves to speaking to schools and youth groups about teenagers' rights during police questioning. One of the five, Antron McCray, refused to have his face shown in the film. After watching the film and being moved to tears, Burns said that McCray decided to publicly address the justice issues raised in the documentary, a testament to its power.