Ken Burns | Interview
With The Central Park Five, the director investigates a famous wrongful-conviction case.
Apart from Sesame Street, Ken Burns is public television’s best-known brand, but The Central Park Five finds him on unfamiliar turf: movie theaters. Opening Friday 7 at the Music Box and appearing simultaneously on VOD, the film investigates the 1989 case of the five young New York men convicted, and later cleared, of raping and savagely beating Trisha Meili, then known as “the Central Park jogger,” a case that brought the city’s racial tensions and fear of crime to a toxic head.
The Central Park Five will show on PBS in April, but it’s already had a festival run and is opening in theaters and on VOD—unusual for you.
Because of the length of this film, it’s manageable in terms of theatrical realities, unlike many of my films, which are long, multipart series, and it has a kind of urgency and seeming contemporariness. I am, and have been all my life, a filmmaker. That means I shoot on film, and I believe in the communion of strangers in dark rooms.
The city of New York, which declined your interview requests, is attempting to subpoena your outtakes as evidence in a civil trial. You argue that you’re a journalist, protected by the state’s shield laws, but they claim you crossed the line into advocacy.
Which is funny, because it is the least advocacy of any film we’ve made. I think there’s two adjectives, one at the beginning, where we say “brutally raped”—I am unafraid of that adjective—and “miraculous recovery.” This is very straight. It’s not advocating anything except what happened. The problem is for the powers that be, for those reactionary forces that continue to desperately claw at some alternate reality, this seems like advocacy. In fact, they’re advocating something that is wholly untrue.
Some critics, most prominently The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, have said the film weakens its argument by not telling us more about the five boys accused of the crime, including why they joined a group of two dozen heading into Central Park to raise havoc.
I think the New York Times review was completely and wholly irresponsible. We will never know precisely what happened in other areas of the park that night. But we do know precisely what happened in the upper reaches of the park near the lock to Trisha Meili. We know who did it, and we know who didn’t do it. That’s what our film is about. All the New York Times review does is give aid and comfort to those reactionary forces.
Your new PBS miniseries, The Dust Bowl, deals with more distant events, but especially after a presidential campaign, the treatment of the New Deal feels like a full-throated defense of government intervention.
For too long, maybe since 1980, the argument has not been “My version of government is better than yours,” it’s just government is a priori bad. I think we’re approaching a place where it’s now, “What is it that government can do?” Chris Christie, a huge critic of the President, understood that there was a force greater than him—Mother Nature—and that inspired him to turn to yet another force greater than him, the federal government.… These are the people who brought you the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Homestead Act, the Land-Grant College Act, the national parks, child labor laws, Social Security, the GI Bill, the interstate highway system and put a man on the moon. Not a bad track record.
The Central Park Five begins Friday 7 on VOD and at the Music Box.