Central Park Five co-director Sarah Burns talks racial profiling and media sensationalism
Five black and Latino teenagers were convicted of beating and raping a white woman in New York City's Central Park in 1989, when the city was in the midst of a racially motivated witch hunt. Though no compelling evidence placed any of the boys -- Antron McKray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Korey Wise -- at the scene, all five served six- to thirteen-year sentences for a crime they did not commit.
The Central Park Five -- opening this Friday, December 21, at the Sie FilmCenter -- details this horrific miscarriage of justice and tells the backstory of how so many respected media outlets fed into the city's unsubstantiated fear.
Written, produced and directed by Sarah Burns, husband David McMahon and father Ken Burns, The Central Park Five sets the social and political scene for what has been labeled a "crime of the century." In advance of the film's opening in Denver, we talked with Sarah Burns about how racial profiling put five innocent teenagers in jail and sent New York City into a fearful tailspin.
Westword: You wrote a book, The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City's Most Infamous Crimes, that preceded the documentary. Why did you choose to write about this case?
Sarah Burns: I was too young in 1989 to have followed the story at all; I was only six years-old when it happened. I first learned about it in 2003 -- at that time I was a college student, and I was spending my summer working as a sort of intern for a civil rights lawyer. I was thinking about law school. He was then getting involved in the civil suit -- the convictions had just been vacated and they were working on getting ready to file the lawsuit in this case.
So I learned about the case then and was fascinated by it. It sort of fit with what I was studying in school -- I was majoring in American Studies at Yale and looking for a topic for my senior essay. I ended up writing my senior essay about this case, and about the racism in the media coverage. That was the sort of the beginning of this; I couldn't really let it go. I mean, there was so much more to it.
I focused at that time on the media coverage, specifically. I didn't interview the five (gentlemen in the case) or anything, it was kind of just an academic study of the four daily papers in New York and what they were saying, how they characterized these guys and what the historical contest was.
But it was such a great project and so fascinating -- it felt like there was so much more to the story. A couple of years later, I turned back and decided, instead of going to law school, I wanted to try to write this book. I spent the next few years doing that. It became very clear early on that this was so right for a film -- it was such an important story.
Not only was it one that wasn't known well enough -- I still talk to people all of the time who say, "Oh yeah, that 'wilding' case -- wait, they didn't do it?" So it felt like setting the record straight was important, but this isn't an isolated case, either. It's a particularly egregious example, I think, because of the media coverage. But it's important that everyone knows that it happened, not only in this case, but that it happens in general.
False confessions happen -- particularly when you're talking about juveniles and the way the system deals with them. There are things we should be aware of and talking about. (Like) why was the newspaper coverage so racist in 1989? It's shocking when you read some of the the stuff that was published then.