Documentary Evidence: A Q&A with Author Sarah Burns

Documentary Evidence: A Q&A with Author Sarah Burns

Documentary Evidence: A Q&A with Author Sarah Burns
August 26, 2014

In April 1989 a white woman jogging in Central Park was raped and nearly killed, and five black teenagers were rounded up and charged with the crime. The case of the “Central Park jogger”—later identified as Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker—riveted New Yorkers and dominated the headlines for months, culminating in the conviction of all five defendants in 1990. In 2002, however, another man confessed to the crime, and the earlier convictions were vacated.

Author Sarah Burns, who first got involved while doing research for a lawyer involved in a civil suit brought by the five men, interviewed them for her 2012 book, The Central Park Five, an account of the incident and subsequent criminal trials. She also collaborated with her father, filmmaker Ken Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, on a documentary of the same name, released in 2012 as well. City & State Albany Bureau Chief Jon Lentz spoke with Burns about the film’s impact, a pending $40 million civil settlement for the five men and race relations in New York City today. 

City & State: You began researching this story in college. Why did you decide to write a book?

Sarah Burns: I was majoring in American studies and interested in 20th-century African-American studies, so it was the perfect thing for me to write my senior project about for my major—and I did that focusing on racism in the media coverage, really narrowly. But I felt like there was so much more to the story than that, and I had so enjoyed that project that was narrowly focused that I couldn’t let go of it. I graduated, and I was working for lawyers on totally unrelated cases, but I kept coming back to this story. It was still bothering me. I hadn’t aspired to be an author, necessarily. It just felt like this was a story that needed to be told. So I decided to figure out how to write a book. It took me five years, because I was making it up as I went along. I really had no idea what I was doing. 

C&S: Did you know you would turn it into a documentary?

SB: The book certainly came first, but once I started working on it, it became completely obvious that it should be a documentary—obvious in part because it’s a family business, and so that’s accessible to me. The medium of documentary film gave us this amazing opportunity, which the book couldn’t, which was to interview the Central Park Five and hear from them in their own words, have them tell their story, and to get to know them.

C&S: The film brought the case back into the limelight, and one of the five men, Yusef Salaam, said it gave them their lives back. Was it rewarding to see that?

SB: The experience of going around and screening the film and having some or all of the Five come along for many of the screenings was really extraordinary. The very first time that we screened the film with one of them there was at the Toronto Film Festival, and one of them, Raymond Santana, came along. He had seen the film before, but he sat in this audience of 500 people and experienced it with this audience of strangers. At the end of the film we came up and the directors introduced us and then they said, “And Raymond Santana,” and the crowd was up on their feet applauding him as he walked up on stage. He was moved to tears in that moment. It was a really extraordinary thing. Throughout a period of a year in rolling this film out, between festivals and the theatrical release and lots of other screenings in schools, community organizations and churches, we saw that happen over and over again. It was an incredible thing to watch these men experience that kind of reaction from audiences, people in the audience raising their hand and apologizing for believing they were guilty before and applauding them and wanting to hug them, and to just to watch what that did for them did something for us, certainly, too. And then also to watch them evolve as speakers, as tellers of their own story, was really remarkable. They had given us this great gift of sharing their story and opening up for the film and for the book. But then as they got to talk to more and more people, you could see them becoming more and more comfortable talking about it and telling their story and recognizing that for them to tell their story, maybe they could help other people. And if anything positive could come out of this, that they now have this ability to go out and have a platform to talk to kids—and their stories may have an impact on other people’s lives, too. 

C&S: The documentary noted that a civil lawsuit brought by the five men against New York City was unresolved. But in June the city agreed to a $40 million settlement in the case. Is that a fair outcome?

SB: Certainly the lawsuit being settled is a direct result of the new administration. If it were still the Bloomberg administration, this lawsuit would still be dragging on. That seems pretty clear. As to the amount, I don’t know. How do you put a price tag on what these guys lost? It seems sort of impossible. Certainly $40 million is a lot of money, and will have a significant impact on their lives. I’m mainly just glad that it’s settled, and that maybe that means there can be some closure in this case that is now 25 years old.

C&S: The city also subpoenaed you. What happened?

SB: The corporation counsel, which was defending the lawsuit, subpoenaed us. Initially they asked for everything we had collected in making the film, and then later narrowed that to our complete interviews. First a magistrate judge and then the judge overseeing the case agreed that we did not have to turn that material over, that we are journalists, and that we are therefore protected by shield laws and that it was not our job to do research for the attorneys in the case. So we did not have to turn anything over. 

C&S: The film establishes a backdrop of fear and crime and racial tensions in New York City at the time of the Central Park jogger case. Today the interplay of race, crime and law enforcement are still major issues, with the recent chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black Staten Island resident, and the shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., in both instances by police officers. Are there any parallels between then and now?

SB: Understanding the story of the Central Park Five, you have to understand New York in 1989. The way the city was then and the things people were afraid of and the way people reacted to this is hugely important to the ultimate outcome of that case—the media coverage, the public response. There is certainly a contrast in the city in some ways. The New York of 1989—part of what we were trying to do in the film, and the book also, is put you in this time: the graffiti-covered subways, the sense of fear and danger in the city. Crime rates were many, many, many times higher. The murder rate in 1990 or 1991 was the peak, over 2,000 murders, and last year I think it was 300-something. We’re talking about a different scale. However, the more things change, the more things stay the same. What we see in Eric Garner, what we were seeing in stop-and-frisk, all of these stories—and outside of New York too, the things that you mentioned in Ferguson—what we learn from each of these things is that these underlying problems that fed the reaction to this case in 1989—not just the crime rates and the fear of crime in the city but the fact that people were then and are today suspicious of minority— especially male—teenagers, and assume that they are criminals or potential criminals, is a problem that really has not changed at all.

C&S: Although you partnered with your father, this film seems a departure from most Ken Burns documentaries.

SB: Ultimately some of the underlying questions that we’re asking are the same, and some of the themes that are dealt with are the same throughout my dad’s work. And so, in maybe the most important way, it’s of a piece and related. I think stylistically it’s more of a departure. That was because the material called for that, the more contemporary nature of the story than much of what he’s done in the past. The fact that we were interviewing the main players in this story—we’re not relying on historians to tell us what’s happened 100, 200 years ago, we are here with the people who experienced this—so that by its nature is a different beast. Once we interviewed the Five, what we figured out was that we didn’t need narration, that they were telling their story and that we could fill it in with other interviews, with other information, but that we didn’t need this voice-of-God narrator telling you what happened, because we have the people themselves to tell you what happened. 

C&S: What’s next for you?

SB: We are working now on a story about the life and times of Jackie Robinson. He obviously is a well-known figure, but no one has ever done a comprehensive biography, not just about his baseball career. We had 42, the feature film a couple years ago that focuses, as many stories about him do, on his early career, his year in the minors, his first year in the majors. That was obviously the moment he had such an incredibly huge impact. We’re looking at his whole life: where he comes from and what he did after his baseball career, and his involvement in politics and civil rights, and hopefully a more complex portrait of this person who has been treated as kind of a Sunday school lesson more than anything else.

City & State