Oscar Doc Preview: Ken Burns's Central Park 5 Vs. Peter Jackson's West Memphis 3?
Are the Central Park Five the next West Memphis Three? The teenagers wrongfully convicted in the vicious 1989 rape and beating of jogger Tricia Meili — and only released after the actual attacker came forward in 2002 — will be showcased in a forthcoming Ken Burns documentary entitled, appropriately enough, The Central Park Five. And while the film was funded in part by Burns's longtime patrons at PBS, the two-time Oscar nominee and four-time Emmy winner (who co-directed the project with his daughter Sarah Burns and son-in-law David McMahon) is taking the film to Cannes next month with the hope of finding a theatrical distributor: "We want to do it [theatrically] because the running time makes it manageable, and there's something urgent about it," he told TV Guide this week. This sounds... familiar?
At least a little familiar, anyway: Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made the festival rounds last year with their HBO-produced documentary Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, another chronicle of miscarried justice made right-ish with the release — if not the exoneration — of wrongly convicted "West Memphis 3" murder suspects Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin. After arranging a qualifying run for Oscar consideration (and helping prompt Academy rule changes), the film went on to lose this year's Best Documentary Feature to the stirring football doc Undefeated. That theoretically cleared a path for the Peter Jackson-produced WM3 doc West of Memphis, recently acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, to cruise to the front of the preliminary 2013 Oscar pack.
Meanwhile, Burns and Co. have cited some canny timing of their own: The Central Park Five's wrongful conviction lawsuits brought against New York City, which plaintiffs Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam are expected to finally bring to court in "the next year or two," according to TV Guide's Gregg Goldstein:
One of the main financiers, PBS, has tentative plans to air the doc next year, but is open to a 2014 broadcast depending on its theatrical rollout. "We'd hope for some kind of harmonic convergence, where this story could be spread on the eve of the trial and potentially affect the outcome," says McMahon, a producer/writer on Burns' 2010 PBS doc Baseball: The Tenth Inning. "It would seem only fair, given that media coverage affected the outcome of the original trial."
The idea for the film came in 2006, two years after Sarah Burns began writing her May 2011 book, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding. When production began three years ago, it was planned as a feature produced by the trio and directed solely by Ken Burns. "In the end, those ultimate decisions made in the editing room were all of ours, so it became clear we should all be directors of the film," says Sarah Burns, who's been involved with the case for nine years. She met two of the men during a college internship at a law firm and also wrote her undergraduate thesis on the case. The film marks the 29-year-old's first effort on any documentary, McMahon's first helming duties, and has several distinctions from a typical "Ken Burns film."
Goldstein explains those distinctions in his piece, but for our own radically speculative purposes, is there any more distinct difference than Oscar-readiness? Burns hasn't earned a nomination since 1986, when he shared a nod for his Statue of Liberty centennial doc, and if a guy like Harvey Weinstein — the Oscar-doc incumbent who might as well kiss his awards chances for Bully goodbye — can get a hold of this, there's no telling what the 2013 race might look like. Just throwing it out there...