11/29/2012 12:18 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

"Maybe the Press Failed Then": An Interview With Ken Burns and Raymond Santana

Directed by classic American filmmaker Ken Burns as well as his daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon, the documentary The Central Park Five is an incredible document -- exposé, really -- of justice denied. Most Americans are familiar, because it is burned into our collective memory, the case of the "Central Park jogger" who was beaten and raped in 1989. It was the occasion for calls throughout the country for crackdowns on black and brown youth, for stiffening of prison penalties, and for the extension of a narrative about urban young people as super-predators.

The problem was that the five teenagers picked up and convicted -- and they have names: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Kharey Wise -- were innocent. Their forced confessions, obtained from scared teens, are sickeningly shown in the documentary. The actual assailant, who confessed years later and whose DNA confirmed his story, was never in the sights of the police and prosecutors. Sadly, people remember the hysteria of the conviction campaign and often don't even realize that the lynch-mob mentality got the wrong guys. Perhaps this film will begin to reverse that memory -- and remind us not to believe popular racist narratives as they are rolled out in the future.

I had the opportunity to interview Ken Burns and one of the exonerated defendants, Raymond Santana, when they were in the Bay Area for the Mill Valley Film Festival. We talked less about the documentary making process and more about this important case and its implications.

RICK AYERS: This is an interesting departure for you, Ken, on a lot of the historical films you've done.

KEN BURNS: I kind of disagree on the surface. Or maybe at heart insofar as race has been a central theme of all the films that I've made. This is stylistically different. It's shorter. It has no narration. And in some places the cutting is at a pace that we don't normally go at. But it's befitting the era so we're not afraid of that kind of rhythm. But there's no third person narration nor first person. There's just interviews and found material from the press and other places. But the theme is the same.

RA: The theme is the same and I'm glad you brought it up from 1989 to 2002 and today. The first thing that strikes me as a humanities teacher is the horrible phenomenon in that incident of the "creation of the other," the idea of young people "wilding," the wolf pack, the monsters, super-predators, none of us is safe. All of that really kicked off at that time. As Jim Dwyer said, "I wish I had been more skeptical, we failed to do our jobs as journalists." But I think about other "liberal" journalists like Bob Herbert and Pete Hamill who wrote terrible things.

KB: I think what happened was that they bought the story hook, line, and sinker and there wasn't the necessary skepticism. Dwyer is doing himself an injustice because he was one of the few who actually did speak out. But the vast majority of his colleagues had not done their job there. But that's not something new. We've been making the other the enemy for as long as there have been human beings. I remember after The Civil War was broadcast, I was at a speaking engagement and a little girl asked me, "What is racism?" And I thought that was the horrible flip side of a very understandable human thing called the love of one's own. But when that metastasizes and is able to take others and turns them into one-dimensional people that you don't have to care about. As if by labeling the other -- red state or blue state, gay or straight, black or white, whatever it is -- suddenly they don't have to be extended the humanity that you wish would be extended to you.

RA: And it was a really toxic mixture. And to see you Raymond and the others as 16-year-olds, even younger, you were just little kids. You did not know what to do.

KB: And they're never going to get that back. And the city just subpoenaed all of our stuff, they delayed for 10 years, they are fighting any accountability. Robert Morgenthau, the most distinguished district attorney in New York, on the reinvestigation found that they did not do it and he joined with the defense in arguing that they should be released which was finally granted. A lot of good it did them because they'd already served out their full terms. But at least it permitted the kind of "we told you so" moment to launch a civil suit that they have now put the slows on like you can't believe and part of that is subpoenaing our material.

RA: I'm trying to think what kinds of demands should come out in the public arena as a result of this case. The whole area of police interrogation of youth, Why should police be allowed to lie about evidence, to say that your pals confessed, to promise that it will go well for you. We have firms that trains police in obtaining confessions through lying to the suspect. We have people like detective John Burge in Chicago who got numerous confessions through the use of torture.

KB: Well, first of all let's draw the line on torture. But I believe we want our police to be able to use whatever they can do to convince people. What we need, and I think this can do it -- maybe the press failed then, they shouldn't fail now as this film comes out -- let's shout loudly that we should be videotaping from the second the questioning begins, not after you've gotten these kids broken down after thirty hours. So that a jury could look and see what manipulative techniques were used. Because you do want to, if you've got a terrorist, and you said the other guy said it's just you and where's the bomb going to go off or whatever it is. If you've got a real bad guy you want to be able to trick him into giving information. The problem is these were children, these were the good kids so they were the most vulnerable because they hadn't been in the system. All the other kids rounded up knew how to say, "Hey I want to talk to a lawyer. Get me my parents." These kids were trying to just cooperate. They went, "Oh dear. I'm in the middle of shit. And the best way out of it is just do what they say." I mean Yusef says it so clearly: "I wasn't so sure that they weren't going to take us out back and kill us."

RA: I work in Oakland, I work with urban youth. And they never think of calling the cops when there's a problem. And there are big problems that come up. That's the dynamic. The trust is not there. These aren't their police. So, Raymond, who still believed in you? Who had your back? And how did you survive this?

RAYMOND SANTANA: My dad had my back. That was the only one. I come from a big family, you know five uncles on my mother's side, three uncles on my father's side. And they all thought I was guilty. They all turned their back on me. My bail was $25,000; nobody wanted to post up any money for me. And the only people I had at the end was my dad. That was it.

RA: And he was able to see you exonerated.

RS: Yes. Yes. Yes.

RA: Because there was one person whose father died.

KB: Antron. And that's one of the great tragedies because you remember Antron's father was in there with the interrogations and the father is taken out and he comes back and says, "Just tell them what they want to hear." And that's the reason that the marriage broke up, that right there, because of guilt and because of anger that both Antron and his mother felt. And why he came back and tried to reconcile with Antron when he got out of jail finally. And he was already sick at that point with cancer and died. And so it's a huge -- just on its own -- Antron's story is an unbelievable tragedy.

RA: Do you think there should be criminal penalties for people who, under cover of office, deprive people of life and liberty? We have people who commit these injustices and the city pays settlements -- Oakland city has paid $10 million in the last year on police misconduct cases.

KB: The city of New York has a budget of nearly a billion dollars to pay for these things and I find it unbelievable. We wanted to make a factual film that wasn't advocating anything, that was just saying, "these are what the facts are." As a private individual, of course I would like to see justice done but let me remind you of another case that I believe is germane. You might remember when several white, well-to-do lacrosse players were charged at Duke with raping somebody. The prosecutor in that case, once it came out that these were false accusations, was not only fired, but he was disbarred and went to jail. So it's way above my pay grade to say what should happen. I just believe that at the heart of it this is a story of people unable to admit that they made a mistake and have been so, as Jim Dwyer said, invested in that mistake that they have created mountains of alternative theories just to protect their reputation.

RA: This story recapitulates the story of rape and race, black men, white women, from the Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till case, gender and race. Why do you think this still resonates, even against the data -- even though the data shows that the overwhelming majority of rapes are within the same race? The narrative...

KB: This is the archetypal thing. The other. It's your first question. It's about the other and what could be more other than a petite white woman and a roving pack of black and Hispanic bad guys, you know? That sold. And rather than the real story that this was the work of a sociopath whose name they knew from an assault two days before, and could have had, and at any point they could have said, "What happened to that?" and could have linked up the DNA, they were just too far along on this thing and they couldn't put on the brakes.

RA: What about the ethical and human responsibility of academics like this professor John DiIulio who, after this case developed, theorized these untruths about "super-predators?" His very popular thesis was that these children have no parents, no religion, they are "wilding," and they're coming to get white people. Here's a major academic at Princeton. Does someone ask him to apologize, to take it back? What can we do to push back against these official stories?

KB: I'll let Raymond answer too but I can just tell you first that you have to let Raymond answer. That is to say our film is an attempt to extend humanity to people who have had their humanity denied for twenty three years. I don't know how you can support a case of a super-predator by looking at Antron and Kharey and Yusef and Kevin and Raymond. It doesn't fit. Now maybe there are others -- and I would assume they cross all racial lines -- that would fit the definition of a "super-predator." But they could even be in law enforcement. I don't know.

RS: It's very true, like Ken said, we didn't come from broken homes. We came from stable homes, with both parents. We went to school every day. So to give us that title super-predator is the same as calling us a wolf pack.

RA: Yes as a teacher sometimes I would hear this toxic talk in the teacher lunch room, people would be saying things like, "Oh that girl, she has a crackhead mom." And I'll investigate and find out: two working parents, hardworking parents. And that is just the shit that teachers say. It is not based on evidence, it is just a narrative that reinforces racial control.

RS: True, true.

RA: How was the process for you, Raymond, making this film?

RS: You know you relive it but you relive it with a purpose. You relive it like you're getting it off and to have that big rock lifted off your shoulders. Because now it's different. Now I'm innocent so it has a whole different aspect to it.

RA: My last question is this. You all served something like 45 years altogether. What is your remedy now besides truth-telling, which itself is very important? Is there any other remedy that would make you whole again?

RS: For me one would be that the city own up to making a mistake. You know, it doesn't hurt them at the end of the day to admit that they're wrong. The mayor, the police commissioner, they weren't even in office when it happened. So why take it so personal? That's one. Another is to get this case closed so that we can finally move on. We can finally move on with our lives and put it behind us and see whatever else God has in store for us.

RA: Well, Raymond, this has to be a very good job interview for you because I'm sure a lot of people would want to hire a person with your guts, your honesty, and your dignity.

KB: Definitely. Free man walking. Free man walking.