Ken Burns discusses his controversial documentary Oscar contender ‘Central Park Five,’ a gross miscarriage of justice, and being in the ‘business of waking the dead.’

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

"The Central Park Five" is a tough and perfect feature documentary by Ken Burns ("The Dust Bowl," "The Civil War'), his daughter Sarah, and her husband David McMahon. It's about a tough and imperfect moment in Manhattan history: when a group of boys went "wilding" in Central Park in 1989, a jogger was raped, and the police put two and two together and got five.

Like a reverse view of "Law & Order," the movie captures how these dark-skinned boys aged 14 to 16 were rammed through the system, made to fit the crime by a team of detectives, and convicted without physical evidence based on confessions given under duress — and an entire city fanned on by tabloid newspaper covers allowed a shameful miscarriage of justice to occur. Many know about the convictions; fewer know that a judge freed the accused when a single serial rapist already in the police system confessed to the crime years later.

"The Central Park Five" opens Friday in Manhattan for Oscar consideration. Burns talked to Yahoo! Movies by phone in the early days of Hurricane Sandy from the green room of "The Late Show With David Letterman," displaying the stubborn perseverance that marks his work. He's not one to be slowed down by a little storm, or a Dust Bowl.

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Thelma Adams: I was living in New York when this miscarriage of justice unfolded. I remember the furor and the fear over the "wilding" in Central Park and the birth of that term, the Central Park jogger on death's door and then slowly recovering. Everybody had an opinion. I remember the daily inflammatory New York Post covers, which I read daily before going there to work in 1993. Where were you during the events that you document in this movie — were you living in New York?

Ken Burns: I spent a lot of time there. I was in and out. I live in rural New Hampshire but it was a thing that made you feel like "What happened to our city?" I bought the story as everybody did without a suspicion that it may be wrong even though there were so many contradictions in the boys' stories.

TA: I remember thinking that the jogger, who was a young white Wall Street professional, put herself in harm's way by running in the northern reaches of the park at night, but that wasn't a popular opinion, or the narrative the city wrote as a whole.

KB: We don't blame the victim. It's not unreasonable that it could have been these boys. They didn't lawyer up. They were the most vulnerable to the tricks that detectives employed. It was a circular firing squad. The teens lost their entire childhood.

TA: Your documentaries, like "The Dust Bowl," which premiered this week on PBS and is available on DVD, tend to be sweeping and encyclopedic. This theatrical doc plays like a true-crime thriller. What inspired you to tackle this inflammatory piece of recent history?

KB: My daughter, Sarah, wrote her senior thesis in Yale in 2003-2004 on this case. When I was reading the early pages of the book, I was like, "We have to make a film." I'd heard that the Central Park Five had gotten off but I was furious. Many of my films deal with race. When the courts vacated the charges in 2002, that event never got the coverage that their convictions did. It wasn't a complete exoneration. The city went, "Oops!" but didn't admit their mistake. Part of the story is now about us. The city has subpoenaed all our outtakes and notes. We just said, "No. You know what you can do with it."

TA: Because now some of the falsely accused have brought on a multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit. But that lawsuit isn't the documentary's focus. One thing that amazed me was the access you had, not only to the accused but also to some of the most visible players in the events of 1989. Mayor Ed Koch was clearly on the wrong side of the fence when the event happened, taking a "guilty until proven innocent" approach when questioned on camera at the time. And here he is, in your film, recanting. That takes a certain amount of bravery.

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KB: I think Koch and Mayor David Dinkins and others showed bravery. All of us fell hook, line, and sinker. It's really about a moment, about people who can't admit they made a mistake. It's a 13-year-old tragedy. And then there's a 10-year justice delayed is justice denied. It's been almost 23 years. The documentary goes from 1989 to 2002. This story resonates with all the themes [of my historical work], the language of Jim Crow America, not language of a progressive American city of the 20th century: The use of the terms "wolf pack," and "black beast," and the hammering in the press to apply the death penalty. It's a good story, and all we hope is that there could be justice for these men in their 30s, that they can have some closure.

TA: There is a feeling of classic tragedy about this documentary. How do you achieve that with nonfiction? That seems to be your gift.

KB: They experienced individual tragedies on the Shakespearean level. These people were described as animals. Take Anton: He escaped New York and moved to the South. He doesn't want to be on camera.

TA: I remember he says in the film that his "father was a superhero to me." And, then, during the police interrogation, his father says to tell them what they ask. He encourages his son to confess to a false narrative. And, under the pressure of the trial, his family implodes.

KB: Yes. Anton's father leaves his mother. The marriage breaks up because of this betrayal. The son is angry and he won't talk to his own father.

TA: Even once Anton is released. And then the father gets sick and dies.

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KB: It's only afterwards that Anton realizes what he missed by holding his anger. By just pricking one surface, the deep human pathos has the reverberation of tragedy.

TA: And that's just one story in the five. You deal with an ecological tragedy in the two-part documentary "The Dust Bowl" that just arrived on DVD and Blu-ray this week following the premiere on PBS. You've called it "the largest man-made ecological disaster in history." That's a pretty big statement.

KB: It's not the conventional wisdom of just a storm. It was a 10-year apocalypse of dozens of storms. It killed cattle and kids. Farmers plowed up grasslands, and when the inevitable drought came, winds blew soil all across America. Every film you make is about human fallibility, human perseverance, and human grace.

TA: If you were to make a documentary of your life, what would be the first shot, or sequence?

KB: The first image would be my mother, who died when I was 11, who lives on in the name of my granddaughter, who was a heroic person who battled cancer for 10 years, who died when I was almost 12. What you wouldn't know about me is that the business I'm in is waking the dead. You wouldn't know about me if she hadn't been the person I'm most interested in, in my life. I'm in the business of making the past coming alive, through emotional archaeology. There was this deep, deep wound way back in my childhood that inspired me to keep going back into history and find some way to repair complicated stories.

See the trailer for 'Central Park Five':

'Central Park Five' Theatrical Trailer