“They’re so full of shit,” says Ken Burns, railing against lawyers for New York, the city that’s been the glamorous star of so many of his documentaries. “The outrage that I feel comes from the fact that people were readily willing to sacrifice the lives of five young men, that they were expendable, that they’re still stuck in a lie, and that the institutional protectionism continues.”
The master of languid still-photo pans and narration-heavy historical rambles seems to have metamorphosed into a firebrand—and not just in conversation. His new documentary, The Central Park Five, looks more like a Spike Lee joint or an Errol Morris exposé than anything in the Burns wheelhouse. It’s about five Harlem teens convicted of the infamous 1989 rape of Central Park jogger Trisha Meili only on the basis of shaky confessions. Those convictions were vacated in 2002 after a serial rapist, whose DNA matched some found at the scene, came clean as the sole attacker—and after the Five had been jailed for years and permanently branded as emblems of urban decay. The movie alternates between grainy, jump-cut archival footage, searing interviews of the men, and ticktock deconstruction of their interrogations. There is minimal music and no narration. An Oscar contender with a limited release this week, Five recently became part of its own news cycle when city lawyers subpoenaed the outtakes for their defense of a civil suit filed by the five men.
Burns calls the movie’s underlying subject, race, “the central operating premise of almost everything I’ve done,” but concedes some major departures. “It was entirely appropriate to let the story tell itself,” dispensing with narration. It’s also his shortest film in decades, his first theatrical release since 1985, and his first collaboration with the newest member of his team, his co-director and daughter, Sarah Burns.