You didn’t have to live in New York to know about the Central Park jogger case.
The Big Apple burned with rage when news broke of a jogger who was beaten, raped and left for dead back in 1989, a crime that sent five minority teens to jail. The trial and convictions pulsated far beyond the city’s five boroughs, but the teens’ subsequent exoneration got far less attention in the press.
“We found everyone remembers the case … but a very small percentage of people really remember what happened,” documentary filmmaker Ken Burns tells Big Hollywood. “Many think they got off on a technicality.”
Burns is justifiably outraged over that fact, a reason he co-directed the new documentary “The Central Park Five.”
The film, now playing in select cities, was co-directed by Burns’ daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon. The movie shows how coerced confessions, five very frightened teens and a media willing to swallow the easy-to-define narrative doomed the group’s youth and innocence.
“To us, it was an extraordinary tragedy. What did happen? Who where these five [teens]? They were demonized by the press,” he says. To tell their story, Burns and his colleagues painted a picture of a less than glorious Big Apple.
“We didn’t shy away from dumping you in the middle of the shit. New York City was going to hell in a hand basket.” he says.
“The Central Park Five” blasts the media and the legal community together for helping dish out injustice. A few journalists take part in the documentary, but the prosecutorial team deferred.
“They knew they couldn’t answer any of the questions we were going to ask of them,” he says bluntly. “We bent over backwards to represent them as fairly as we could,” he adds. The film eschews narration on only uses a handful of title cards to frame the story.
The film does allow the five teens, now adults, to share their sides of the story.
“They’re extraordinary human beings … with an absence of bitterness that’s impressive,” he says.
Burns typically toils on behalf of PBS, and his next project returns him to the small screen. It could be his biggest project to date – remembering the Vietnam War.
“We’re gonna put our arms around the whole war,” he promises. “It will be fair and tell the story from every single perspective, from POWs to draft dodgers to Gold Star Mothers, generals, diplomats and the regular folks. We’re prepared to tell the most complicated of stories about the war.”
He’s also ready for potential blowback on the topic, one that continues to divide the nation nearly four decades since hostilities ceased.
“God forbid we’re scared of controversial subjects,” he says.