No one has played a larger role in this explosion in non-fiction filmmaking than Ken Burns, especially with his landmark historical series on television, “The Civil War” and “Baseball.”
His new film is “The Central Park Five,” where he shares the producing, directing and writing credits with David McMahon, who co-produced “The War” with Burns, and Sarah Burns, author of a book about the incendiary legal drama at the heart of the film.
The filmmakers run into trouble almost immediately.
The case concerns five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem wrongly accused and convicted in the Central Park Jogger rape case in 1989.
After serving between six and 13 years in prison, a judge vacated the original convictions in 2002 due to a confession to the crime by a serial rapist along with new DNA evidence that implicated only him.
The tragedy of this miscarriage of justice is a minefield of racism and institutional bias, police and prosecutorial misconduct, media sensationalism, political showboating and a dysfunctional legal system.
Plenty of material, in other words, for Sarah Burns, who is the filmmaker’s daughter and worked as a paralegal for the plaintiff’s lawyers, to write a book.
Through enough research into attorneys’ briefs and newspaper reports along with interviews on and off the record, a diligent author can take a reader behind the scenes and flesh out a full portrait of the accused, the trial, the media and all the participants.
A documentary movie has much more stringent requirements: It needs images. All the time.
If a filmmaker has only facts to relate, unlike an author who can write them and cite a source, someone has to stand in front of a camera to deliver these facts.
You have to dig up archival footage, get interviews with those willing to appear on camera or find someone willing to explain the necessary facts. With such a still controversial case, the filmmakers not surprisingly stuck out in many areas.
As expected, all police and prosecutors refused to be interviewed. You can, of course, hint at their thoughts and strategies from secondary sources. Three journalists do appear on camera to discuss aspects of the case. But it isn’t even clear if they covered the trial or how far their knowledge goes.
For what happened during those crucial hours — between 14 and 30 hours is the guess — when the five juveniles were in police detention and being grilled over and over, the filmmakers only have the on-camera statements of four of the five defendants, now adults. (One opted for an off-camera interview.)
All the movie can do to represent those torturous hours, cut off from family and friends — when five kids who knew nothing about the rape were coerced into fabricating statements — is to show old photos of the interrogating cops and shots of cigarettes smoking in an ashtray on a set dressed to look like an empty interrogation room.
Years in lock-up get represented by shots of prison walls and barbed wire in the snow. The trial is reduced to bad color sketches from the courtroom although you aren’t told if this art work is newly drawn or from the time of the trial itself.
The archival footage and TV news shows of the era barely give a sense of how sensational the case of the Central Park Jogger was at the time.
In other works, the filmmakers lack the visual information to tell the story fully.
Despite these handicaps, the film does make a persuasive case that authorities, under enormous pressure to solve the crime as swiftly as possible, took the easy and convenient route of talking these five boys — in old footage they look even younger than they were at the time — into a complete fiction.
The film also does a decent job of supplying a backdrop to these heinous events.
New York in 1989 felt like it was under attack by the forces of crime, crack cocaine, economic disparities, pornography and blight. Mayor Ed Koch then threw down a gauntlet to the police and legal system: The system itself was on trial in the days following the near fatal attack, he stated.
There was basically no evidence against these five. Worse, the DNA didn’t match any one of them.
All police and prosecutors had then were videotaped “confessions” by these boys — all recorded without attorneys and after hours of grilling — and even these were inconsistent with the facts and none was self-accusatory.
They were railroaded.
But the movie is a tough sit, not just because it details a miscarriage of justice that can never be truly recompensed. It’s tough because the doc is so frequently at a loss for a proper image to tell its story.
So you get constant cut-aways to those cigarette butts, snowy prison walls, talking heads and newspaper headlines. (Tellingly, nearly all are from the New York Post and Daily News.)
Two former New York mayors, Ed Koch and David Dinkins, do appear on camera as does a historian to put things into context. But much of this becomes as repetitious as those smoking cigarettes.
What the film does best is explain the psychology behind the authorities’ attachment to a false story. Once heavily invested in it, they truly start to believe it themselves.
The evidence that doesn’t fit into that story is overlooked and discarded. For instance, the evidence that only one person was the true perp sits in front of them all the time yet is ignored.
The film, which plays at AFI Fest in L.A., is due for release November 30 and an airing on PBS next year. It will also undoubtedly have an impact of a suit brought by the Central Park Five against the city in 2003, which remain unresolved.
Not that the city isn’t fighting back to protect its own officials. One can only hope a kind of justice is finally served.
Read more about the case as it now stands here.
Venue: AFI Fest
Opens: November 30, 2012 (Sundance Selects)
Production company: Florentine Films
Director-screenwriter-producers: Ken Burns, David McMahon, Sarah Burns
Directors of photography: Buddy Squires, Anthony Savini
Music: Doug Wamble
Editor: Michael Levine
No rating, 119 minutes