Many New Yorkers would like to forget the spring of 1989, but a new documentary has reintroduced the “Central Park Five” and has stirred up its share of controversy, just like the case did over 20 years ago.
In April of 1989, five young men of color were falsely accused of the brutal rape and assault of a white female jogger in Central Park. After coerced confessions, which were recorded on videotape, the case made national headlines, furthering the story of a city “out of control” and introducing media-sensationalized terms like “wilding” to the public. The five boys, Raymond Santana, Yusuf Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise and Antron McCray, were referred to as a “wolfpack.” After being convicted and sentenced, the young men wouldn’t be exonerated until 2002, when Matias Reyes confessed to being the real culprit.
The AmNews sat down with Ken Burns and Wise at the Loews Regency Hotel on Manhattan’s East Side–and spoke with Santana by phone–earlier this week to discuss the making of the film, how it felt to rehash those memories on camera and the city’s attempt to subpoena Burns, his daughter Sarah and his son-in-law David McMahon for outtakes of the film, as the Central Park Five are currently embroiled in a long-running civil suit.
“A beautiful young woman, who happens to be my first-born,” said Burns, “had heard about this between her junior and senior year at Yale University. She wrote her final thesis on the representations of race in the media coverage of the Central Park Jogger case and later on decided that she would write a book about it.”
Burns said that while she was writing the book, he was able to read some of the first draft and decided he wanted to make a film on the same topic.
“Since I had been working for years with her husband, David McMahon, a great filmmaker in his own right, the three of us decided to make a film together that’s not so much based on the book, but would allow us to elaborate in film the miscarriage of justice her book documents,” he said.
Burns said that he wanted to show the humanity that had been denied the five young men during the media coverage of the case.
“Me and Kevin met Sarah in 2003 when she was an intern at our lawyer’s office,” Santana told the AmNews. “We gave her interviews for the paper there, and we kept in touch. She did all of this research and became outraged. A few years later, she approached us about writing a book. We had become friends, and we were comfortable that she would tell the facts.” Santana said he had no clue who Ken Burns was and didn’t know Sarah was his daughter, but they trusted her enough to give the green light on making the film.
When Burns discussed his memories of the case and the media coverage surrounding it, he admitted to being suckered into the mass hysteria himself, “Because the media coverage was so certain that they found the perpetrators–that it hadn’t been the random act of a sociopath as it turned out to have been–but this incredibly symbolic moment where five ‘wilding’ teenagers ‘wolfpack.’”
The kind of language that had been used to justify lynchings of African-Americans in the Jim Crow era “was now being employed at the end of the 20th century in a supposedly progressive American city to justify what amounted to the lynching of five individuals,” Burns said.
“I bought it,” he continued. “I thought, ‘What was happening to our cities? What happened?’ [New York State Governor Mario] Cuomo was rubbing his hands and saying the cities are ungovernable. It just seemed to be symbolic of a decline. And then I noticed that when they were vindicated–when their sentences were vacated 13 years later–I noticed that the coverage was nothing, and my outrage began to boil. And my outrage has continued to boil for the last 10 years.”
Burns also stated that the Central Park Jogger case, coupled with the lawlessness of the 1980s, the crack epidemic, the feeling that things were out of control, the squeegee operators and the graffiti, led the city to give the authorities leeway to do whatever they wanted so that citizens could feel safe. He also noted that this case led to the reintroduction of the death penalty in New York state.
Santana took it a step further.
“Back then, when this case came forth, we were charged as adults,” Santana said. “And now you have stop-and-frisk and Trayvon Martin.” He said it’s easy to trace things back to their case, including new practices and policies by the police.
But despite the pain of the memory, Santana says the reception to the film has been overwhelmingly positive and he’s grateful for that.
“The screenings have been great. The response has been awesome,” Santana said. “People have come to us and apologized. They have cried. People wanted to hug us. And it’s been very great, it’s very appreciative. Because back then, we felt like the whole world was against us.”
But what about the recent subpoena by the city and the NYPD for outtakes of the film? What would the city think they can get out of these outtakes? Burns had a clue.
“This is a fishing expedition that further delays the trial that has been outrageously delayed,” said Burns. “A fishing expedition to look for inconsistencies so they can constantly point out minute changes in someone’s testimony. That’s all it is. It is an intrusion on our First Amendment rights as journalists. It is an intrusion under the shield laws of the state of New York, and we have moved to squash the subpoena.”
“The Central Park Five” opens in theaters Nov. 23.