This week, PBS will air “The Central Park Five,” a new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, which tells the story of five Black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping and beating a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. Convicted as teenagers, the five defendants spent between six and 13 years in prison before a serial rapist admitted to the crime and their convictions were overturned.
At HLS on March 12, Burns and his co-producers, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, joined Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree and two Central Park Five members for a film screening and panel discussion. The event was co-sponsored by Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, the Prison Studies Project and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
After the screening, Ogletree moderated a discussion with the filmmakers and Central Park Five members Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson.
“I think we set out to try to answer two questions; how could something like this happen, and who were these five?” said Burns.
“One thing about us being here speaking to you, is that it’s extremely therapeutic for us, because in 1989, we didn’t have a voice,” said Richardson, who now lives in New York City and works in environmental services at a geriatric center. “We were to scared to speak, because we thought the world was against us.”
The panelists discussed how race and sexuality influenced the case, how the film can influence the state of racism in the legal system and what people can do to raise awareness of the trial and advocate for justice.
While the police involved in the case refused to participate in the film, Burns stated, “We know that film is a powerful tool, and we hope that in some way with this film … we might have an ability to affect something, or at least exert the pressure on the city, so that somebody wakes up and says, ‘remind me again why we’re protecting people who screwed up 24 years ago?’”
Santana, who now works for one of New York City’s largest unions and works with the Innocence Project, said: “To stay bitter will take you to the grave, will eat you from the inside out and I accept the apologies, because I understand at the end of the day, you were fed a false story. You were misled, and we can’t hold that against you.”
For more on the film and scheduled programming, go to http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/centralparkfive/about/overview/