Ken Burns examines lives lost, racial bias in ‘Central Park Five’

The Central Park Five

'The Central Park Five' originally debuted Friday, November 23 2012, in theaters. (Photo/Courtesy of Sundance Selects)

Burns also takes issue with city lawyers who would describe his film as more activism than journalism. One city lawyer, Celeste Koeleveld, told New York Magazine’s Boris Kachka that Burns and his team were “advocates for settlement,” and not covered by the same laws which were designed to protect journalists.

Burns told theGrio he took issue with her characterization:

“What’s wrong with something that would settle this festering racial wound in the city of New York? I have not advocated for on behalf of any kind of settlement. I have just said this [case] seems important to put behind us [...].

“We asked [city officials] to comment, to interview — they refused. So now they say it’s ‘advocacy’ because they’re not in it. We bent over backwards to represent their point of view. We bent over backwards to include their point of view at the time.”

Burns said the film is bigger than just the five young men whose lives were interrupted and changed forever (including the actual victim that night) – Burns said the April, ’89 incident is one in unfortunately too many that continue to happen today.

“When we took this film to Cannes Film Festival, the French just thought this [film] was the ratification of everything they feared about the United States,” Burns said. “They asked me if [these incidents] still go on and I said ‘Yes – there’s a young man named Trayvon Martin who would not be dead but for the color of his skin. The struggle goes on.”

The five men – Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam – gathered last week at the School of Visual Arts Theater in Manhattan. It was the first time they had all been together since their arraignment.

Burns said the film and their story can prove as both an inspiration and education for young men who encounter the police.

“Why don’t we start teaching Miranda [rights]?” Burns asks. “Because, in fact, the [five teens] were the most vulnerable of all the kids picked up that night. The other bad kids had been in the system before — they knew how to Miranda, they knew how to lawyer up. The [five teens] were trying to cooperate. They were trying to cooperate and this is what happened in the face of that cooperation.”

The Central Park Five documentary opens in New York theaters Friday.

Follow theGrio’s Todd Johnson on Twitter @rantoddj