When Ken and Sarah Burns held a book signing recently at Barnes and Noble near Tribeca, it was just that: a book signing. The only discussion they had was with patrons who purchased books and wanted to know more about the “Central Park Five,” a case that reminded a lot of old-timers about the Scottsboro Boys back in the 1930s.
By now, thanks to the documentary and Sarah Burns’ book, the case is widely known across the nation, even as far away as Oklahoma. Said Ken Burns with delight, “It’s been getting great readings and was featured at the Toronto Film Festival.”
The documentary chronicles an incident that rocked the nation in 1989, when five African -American youth from Harlem were arrested, tried and convicted of raping a white jogger in Central Park. What the Burnses and co-director David McMahon disclose is the abysmal failure of the so-called criminal justice system and the media. If it hadn’t been for a coincidental meeting of one of the young men and the actual rapist inside a penal institution, they would all probably still be serving time.
As it were, each of them spent from seven to 13 years behind bars, and they are still in court battling for restitution for their wrongful convictions.
“For more than 10 years now, they have been waiting for the city to compensate them,” said Sarah Burns, whose response overlapped that of her father’s. In fact, they have been so deeply involved in this case that they finish each other’s sentences and anticipate the questions.
“The case is now in depositions,” they answered together. “The city has refused to settle the case and is now delaying things with lengthy interviews.” The $250 million lawsuit–$50 million per plaintiff–against the city was filed 10 years ago.
Since the film came out last year, there have been a number of forums in which the Burnses and the Central Park Five–Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana–have appeared together. The turnouts have been massive, comprised mainly of young people, many of whom are hearing about the incident for the first time.
One of several critical developments the film has provoked occurred when lawyers for the city sought to subpoena video outtakes from the documentary to bolster their defense. However, Florentine Films, the company that released the film, invoked a journalist’s shield that protected them from relinquishing the outtakes. The judge ruled in Florentine’s favor, though the city’s attorneys claimed the filmmakers were not journalists and were advocates for the five young men.
“This is the most journalistic film I’ve ever made,” Ken Burns said, and his credits are extensive, including award-winning documentaries on the Civil War and baseball. “What they were trying to do was to have it both ways, indicating in one instance we were journalists and in another that we were not.”
Another issue that has stemmed from the film is the clamor from activists who are incensed that Elizabeth Lederer, the lead prosecutor in the case and still an assistant district attorney, is now employed at Columbia Law School. A petition is making the rounds demanding that she be fired.
“We are definitely opposed to that campaign,” Ken Burns asserted. “It’s beside the point, and we’re just talking about justice.”
Fresh from the Cannes Film Festival, Ken Burns said working on the “Central Park Five” has interrupted their Jackie Robinson project, though didn’t we get that story in the film “42”?
“They only touched on Jackie’s life,” he said. “Our film will be about his life and times, and we are working with his widow, Rachel.”
In his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” Robinson reveals many of the trials and tribulations he had to overcome to become a Hall of Fame ballplayer. “And that’s the story we are going to tell,” Sarah Burns concluded.
If it’s anything like “The Central Park Five,” it should be out of the park.