A documentary by Sarah Burns
Made in collaboration with Ken Burns and David McMahon
Key Participants: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise,
Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana
Summary: Around 9 PM on April 19, 1989, a twenty-eight year old investment banker entered Manhattan’s famous Central Park and began jogging up Park Drive North.
Unbeknownst to her, police had already received reports about a youth gang in that general vicinity, and when she was found a few hours later—brutally raped, beaten, and left for dead—suspicion immediately fell on some of the kids already in custody. Five of these boys—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana—were then tried, convicted, imprisoned for years, and eventually exonerated.
Watching Sarah Burns’ remarkable documentary The Central Park Five today, it is almost impossible to believe that all of this really happened; if this film was a narrative feature, we might even find some of the plot elements “contrived.” So the filmmakers know they must make the context vivid, and this is where collaborators Ken Burns and David McMahon use their solid technique to ground Sarah’s passion.
In 2012, the world saw a Presidential campaign replete with ugly images, and there is no denying the persistence of racism in the American psyche. So maybe, just maybe The Central Park Five arrives at precisely the right time to fully absorb its lessons.
The evening of April 19, 1989 was unseasonably warm, and even though it was a Wednesday, kids in New York City didn’t have school the next day (because in 1989, April 19th just happened to be the first night of Passover). Way up in Harlem, an amorphous group of teenagers starting flowing down into Central Park, and some of them eventually started making trouble—harassing runners and cyclists, and assaulting a stumbling drunk.
Around 9 PM, a twenty-eight year old investment banker with a Phi Beta Kappa key from Wellesley College and an MBA from Yale entered the park from her apartment near the Metropolitan Museum of Art (one of Manhattan’s most affluent neighborhoods) and began jogging around the reservoir on Park Drive North. Unbeknownst to her, police had already received reports about a youth gang in that general vicinity, and when she was found a few hours later—brutally raped, beaten, and left for dead—suspicion immediately fell on some of the boys already in custody.
Skip ahead twenty-three years, and first-time filmmaker Sarah Burns has just released a remarkable documentary about events that occurred when she was just a little girl. She didn’t do it alone of course. Like Sofia Coppola (the third woman and first American woman ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar), Sarah is the daughter of a famous father who grew up “in the family business” (as she told Charlie Rose recently). In this case, Sarah is listed as co-director with her father Ken Burns as well as her husband David McMahon (who has IMDb credits on three of Ken Burns’ most popular PBS series).
But this story, the story of The Central Park Five has personally consumed Sarah for almost a decade. In the preface to the book she published last year (The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding), Sarah says: “During the summer of 2003, before my last year of college, I worked as a researcher for civil rights lawyers involved in a civil suit on behalf of Antron, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Raymond…” and once she got back to school, she wrote her undergraduate thesis on the case. So Sarah does not claim to be impartial, but she is methodical and thorough and she accomplishes an enormous amount in 119 minutes (a fraction of the time Ken Burns usually takes to tell his multi-part television tales).
“Antron, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Raymond” are Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana, five boys who were tried, convicted, imprisoned and eventually exonerated for attacking Trisha Meili (known to history forevermore as “The Central Park Jogger”).
Watching The Central Park Five today, it is almost impossible to believe that all of this really happened; if this film was a narrative feature, we might even find some of the plot elements “contrived.” So the filmmakers know they must make the context vivid, and this is where Ken Burns and David McMahon use their solid technique to ground Sarah’s passion.
Photos and film clips from the late ‘80s depict New York in an economic trough. Yesterday afternoon I got on the subway in Brooklyn and rode all the way to the edge of Central Park South; then hours later, I did the reverse. Both times the trains were clean and safe, and fellow passengers were helpful and friendly. How different from the filthy, graffiti-scrawled cars we see in The Central Park Five, filled with people averting their gaze in a city with deteriorating services and an exploding crime rate.
In April 1989 George H. W. Bush, newly inaugurated, had campaigned for president by running endless loops of the infamous “Willie Horton” ad. Similar footage of “the Central Park Five” helped people perceive them as monsters too. But we look at these images from 1989 today (five boys—four African-Americans and one Latino—all between the ages of 14 and 16) and these “monsters” are clearly children.
Furthermore they were all relatively good boys: all five had strong supportive families and no history of prior trouble. On any other Wednesday night, they likely would have gone to sleep and headed off to school the next morning. But this night there was no sleep—for them or for their family members—only continuous interrogation and intimidation until they agreed to videotaped “confessions” that serve to emphasize—now—all these years later—that they had no idea what they were saying.
We have just ended another campaign season replete with ugly images. We have seen the face of America’s first Black president photo-shopped onto the body of an ape, while elsewhere in the media melee, a teenage boy in a hoodie was killed by a man who claimed the right to “stand his ground.” There is no denying the persistence of racism in the American psyche, but in the case of the Central Park Five, all of our precious “checks and balances” failed.
Kudos to Sarah Burns for her determination to tell this story; kudos too to Ken Burns and David McMahon for helping her tell it so well. Ironically, it is just possible that the film arrives at precisely the right time to fully absorb its lessons. Film fans can seek it out at festivals and art houses now. Skeptics can watch it on PBS come spring. (It is already scheduled to play in mid-April of 2013, right around the anniversary date of April 19.) By that time, Barack Obama will have begun a second term in which his daughters, now teenagers, are likely to start dating boys who look a lot like Antron, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Raymond.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (12/7/12)—Special for WomenArts