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Ken Burns: The Interview

Written by: Ed Rampell

Ken Burns, that peerless chronicler of American history with nonfiction films such as 1990’s epic The Civil War, Baseball (1994), and Jazz (2001) is back with two new documentaries that take us from the Midwest’s Dust Bowl to Manhattan’s Central Park.

Central Park Five – The Back Story:
A recurring theme in Alfred Hitchcock’s movies is that the wrong man is considered to be guilty of committing crimes or doing things he is actually completely innocent of.  In April 1989, a female Caucasian jogger was viciously beaten and raped in Central Park; five teenagers were charged and convicted of perpetrating this “wilding.” Raymond Santana, Korey (aka Kharey) Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam went on to serve prison time for the sensational “Central Park Jogger” case.

However, in 2002 Matias Reyes confessed to the assault; after his DNA matched the evidence and details of his story conformed with details of the crime known only to authorities, the five Harlem youths were exonerated of the rape.  Sarah Burns, the daughter of Ken Burns — wrote an academic paper and then a book about this miscarriage of justice.  This led to Sarah and her father, along with David McMahon (her husband) co-directing, co-writing and co-producing The Central Park Five.

The film has audiences sitting on the edges of their seats as if they’re watching a Hitchcock Hollywood movie.  However, unlike the Master of Suspense’s cinema, this is a documentary and it’s all true.

Meanwhile, hard on the heels of Superstorm Sandy, Ken Burns’ searing look at another natural disaster aided and abetted by man-made causes — the Depression-era mini-series The Dust Bowl – just premiered on PBS, and will be released soon on DVD.

As part of a round-table discussion Rock Cellar Magazine got a chance to sit down for a chat with the articulate filmmaker Ken Burns.  He discusses his two new films, the creative process of nonfiction filmmaking, and how almost everything in his films connects to race in America.

Rock Cellar Magazine: In The Dust Bowl, which occurred during the 1930s, did you find man-made reasons for this environmental disaster?

Ken Burns:  Yes.  The Dust Bowl is the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States, if not the world.

We turned over an area greater than the size of Ohio of grasslands — grasses that evolved over thousands of years that should have stayed there.  In very marginal areas that the earliest European explorers had said was wholly unsuitable to a society based on agriculture.  As the United States is based on.  They turned over this dirt, and they had some wet years, and they turned over more dirt and then when the normal weather patterns came back and the constant winds were blowing you had dust storms.

And not just a handful of dust storms; hundreds of dust storms for 10 years — an apocalypse of almost biblical proportions, where we moved in one day, in one storm, more dirt than it took the 10 years of excavation of the Panama Canal.   A storm that blew dust all the way across — settled inches in Chicago, in Detroit.  Franklin Washington went with his fingertip across the desk in the Oval Office and came up with Oklahoma.  And the next day ships out at sea were covered with a patina of dust.

This is dust that killed their crops; dust that killed their cattle; and more importantly, killed their children, with this phenomenon called dust pneumonia.  This whole panoply of respiratory diseases that people started getting sprang up, that would take the youngest or oldest of a family, and sometimes somebody strapping and in good health.

It was almost unbelievable in its scope and shape and it is filled with cautionary tales about human hubris, about greed, about always thinking that the real estate bubble is going to last.  It’s about, obviously, lessons today about climate change.

RCM:  How did Pres. Roosevelt’s New Deal respond to the Dust Bowl?

KB:  The government was the only entity that could possibly offset the devastation that Mother Nature was wreaking.

The surplus commodities programs kept people alive.  The W.P.A. [Works Progress Administration] gave people jobs and built highways, bridges, airports and high schools that are used to this day.  But also, they planted hundreds of millions of trees in shelter belts.  They convinced farmers to try new ways of plowing.

RCM: With your other new doc, The Central Park Five, you’re getting closer to covering current times?

KB:  Well, in fact we bounce all over the place.  Because I’ve had films before the Civil War that came up to the present and films after the Civil War that came up to the present.  This is literally the most journalistic of all our films.  Because even though The Central Park Five goes from April 19, 1989 to just before Christmas 2002, it’s just the facts.  There’s no narration.  I don’t think there’s a single adjective except “brutally,” with regard to the rape, in the printed titles that we wrote.

But there is something incredibly fresh, I think, and exciting for me, to work with my daughter and David McMahon, a filmmaker who also happens to be my son-in-law, because of the energy we could bring to this and new techniques we could try.

But in many ways it’s the same film — because almost every film we’ve done has touched on or come up against the question of race in America.

The Civil War wouldn’t have happened without 4 million Americans being owned by other Americans.  The finest moment in baseball is when Jackie Robinson starts playing on April 14, 1947.  The only art form that Americans have created is created by a community that has the experience of being un-free in a supposedly free land, that’s jazz music.

I’ve done biographies of Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion.  We did a film on the Statue of Liberty, and dealt with race, and whether that statue turns its back to America, as much as it welcomes immigrants.

We did a biography of Thomas Jefferson, the author of our racial disease, who could sit there and distill a century of Enlightenment thinking into one sentence, that begins: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”  But oops, he owns more than 100 human beings, and doesn’t see the contradiction or the hypocrisy or need to free any of them in his lifetime, so set in motion the American narrative that’s dominated by a question of race.

“Almost every film we’ve done has touched on or come up against the question of race in America.”

Think about the “birther” issues with this president, think about all that stuff:  They’re just coded words for race.  So, it’s there; it’s in this case.  It’s in the language of a liberal, progressive city in the late 20th century, the language of the “wolf pack” and “wilding” is the language of the Jim Crow South.  Ecclesiastes says: “What has been will be again.  What has been done will be done again.  There’s nothing new under the sun.”  That basically says that human nature never changes.

So you can expect the present to resonate with the past and the past to resonate with the present, that is to say, it’s future.  So it’s there. You can take a headline as we do in the film from a Jim Crow newspaper headline about “Negro brutes,” and it doesn’t look very different from the “marauding band of wolf pack,” separated by almost a century and by 1,000 miles between the liberal Northeast and the supposedly conservative South.

Photo: Mark Conrad; Stamford Advocate

I’ve been escorted out of Alabama churches by state police because people were fearful that something would happen to me.  I get racist hate mail since the beginning of my professional life, saying, “You nigger loving this and you nigger –“ and like that.

Actually, things have changed.  We do have an African-American president.  We have made more progress more than most any other country.  But part of that progress is the movement of groups that gets exploited by other groups in whose interest it is to keep people apart.

So we play on fears that are religious, we play on fears that are racial, we play on fears that are sexual, we play on lots of fears just to keep people apart, when most of us share the same self interest.  Progress has been made; not enough progress has been made.

Could this happen again?  Yes; it’s happening every day in America.  Someone, usually because of color, is charged with a crime they did not do.  Confessions are coerced all the time, because of the pressures and techniques the cops are able to do.

Should we record things from the very minute they walk into the station house?  You bet. Raymond Kelly, who was the Police Commissioner in New York City, a man who I know and respect greatly, has said that should take place. That echoes sentiments of lots of people who want to push back about it. Because it would reveal to juries the sometimes duplicitous tack that detectives take to get people to confess.

Kharey (Korey) Wise; NY Daily News Archives

You can see Korey, as a young 16 year-old kid, who said he didn’t feel 16, he felt 12. Answering those questions and just sort of willingly saying, “Yeah, I get it, I get it.” Not understanding that at any time in the process he could have — it was only Yusef’s mom who broke in and said, “Stop this right now!”

Yusef Salaam. Photo: Clarence Davis; NY Daily Ness

She’s a professor of fashion design at Parsons in New York.  And that’s the only reason why Yusef didn’t make a videotaped statement.  His notes though were entered into evidence by his own lawyer.  Only Antron really had great legal help, and that was Mickey Joseph, who was stunned by Antron’s grace.  At the worst moment he turns and thanks his lawyer. Joseph said, “I’ve been in the criminal justice system for a long time and nobody does that.” That’s the kind of polygraph that this film is.

Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and is connected by DNA testing.

The media was hugely complicit in this story. They took this hook, line and sinker and it now seems it’s the media’s turn to help amplify what we said and go in and look.  There’s a lot of great stories embedded in this that need the light of day. I’d like to go back and make an entire film on April 17th - two days before – when they had Matias Reyes and then didn’t find him.  Something funny is going on there I need to find out more about.

RCM:  How is the subpoena going?

Ken Burns:  We’re in the middle of it and I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.  But we are not going to honor the subpoena as it is.  We will have to go to court; I’ll let a judge tell me what I have to do, not the City of New York.  It’s clearly a cynical delaying tactic in a civil suit that’s already been delayed nearly a decade.

These guys suffered in an obvious tragedy for 13 years, with justice denied.  Now it’s almost 10 more years of justice delayed, which we know is justice denied.

Race is a huge part of this story.   But at the end it’s just a universal story about human failing.

This is a 13-year tragedy that now has become almost a 23 year old tragedy because there are some cops and assistant D.A.s who cannot stand admitting that they were wrong, because of what it might do to their careers or reputations.

Never mind the fact that they stole the identities, the lives, of five kids, now men, who are clearly through the polygraph that cinema is, honorable human beings, honorable human beings. They’ll always be the Central Park five.  But up until now that meant only bad things. Now it means people who are speaking out for their innocence.  People who have a chance.

Antron Mcray, Raymond Santana, Devin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise. (photo: michael nagle)

Q: Will this film have a big impact?

KB:  We think yes; we hope yes. But it becomes incumbent upon the media, who failed the first time, to not fail the second time. That is to say this is an opportunity — this is not the failure just of cops and prosecutors, but of a whole media system that bought that story hook, line, and sinker.

RCM:  When you’re editing documentary footage, how do you choose what you’re going to use?

KB:  I live in New Hampshire.  We make maple syrup.  And it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.  And that is very much like documentary filmmaking.  This is what we do for a living: This horrific triage of taking hours and hours and hours of material, sometimes 40 times the amount in the final film, and winnowing it down into something that’s a story.

The Central Park Five is right.  It’s under two hours, it’s riveting, you can’t take your eyes off them and their confessions.  But they’re so painful.  How do you let people go? ’Cause once you’ve got a knot in your stomach then how do you breathe.  So sometimes you to a picture of the exterior of the precinct house.  One, two, three, and then you can pick up the story again.  It’s like a chapter changing; it allows you just to relax.

People imagine that the cutting room floor is filled with stuff that isn’t good; on the contrary, it’s filled with good stuff – it just doesn’t fit.  Remember the movie Amadeus? “Too many notes.” That’s our job: We have to figure out how to make those really tough decisions. To take something that was 10 minutes long and make it five in a particular scene.  For the structure, the pace, the rhythm of the film.  That’s what all documentary filmmakers have to do.

The Central Park Five will air on PBS in April, 2013.

RELATED:

Ken Burns: Dust Bowl Documentary on PBS Airs November 18th and is Climate-Change Timely.

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