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There are few with a stronger grip on the history of baseball than filmmaker Ken Burns, and perhaps no one has had a bigger hand in mythologizing the game in the past 20 years. His Emmy-winning 1994 documentary Baseball helped frame the up-and-down legacy of America’s pastime, and Burns maintains an intense obsession with the sport — which he made clear in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter.
Burns was in Manhattan to accept an honor from the New York Film Critics Circle for his new documentary, Central Park Five, which deals with the sad legacy of five black and Hispanic teenagers who were coerced into giving false confessions to a gang rape in Central Park in 1989. It was deemed the case of the century — five years before O.J. Simpson‘s low-speed chase through Southern California — and new evidence saw their convictions overturned in 2002. Burns’ film, which was given the NYCFF’s best documentary award, tackles the process through which those false confessions were obtained, and the video interviews have been subpoenaed by the NYPD, which wants to use them in a lawsuit over the alleged misdeeds of the department. Thus far, Burns and his co-directors — daughter Sarah Burns and her husband Dave McMahon — have refused to hand them over.
Burns and his co-directors spoke with THR about baseball on the eve of the annual Hall of Fame announcements, Central Park Five and more.
The Hollywood Reporter: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Mike Piazza are all on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Would you vote for them?
Ken Burns: No.
Ken Burns: I want them to suffer for a while.
THR: Even if they were good before they allegedly used steroids?
Ken Burns: I think the argument is that without a doubt Clemens and Bonds should be in there, and at the highest levels. Barry Bonds may be the greatest baseball player of all time, and Roger Clemens — maybe you’d get some arguments from the [Sandy] Koufax/[Pedro] Martinez sector and the Walter Johnson segment and the Nolan Ryan crowd — but they are two of the very, very best. And before when we think they began taking, they’re Hall of Fame caliber. But at the same time, the problem is we don’t know who didn’t at all. I mean, I know one person in all of the Major Leagues I’m absolutely certain didn’t, and that’s Ichiro Suzuki. But other than that, I have no guarantee that anyone you loved and think is way above that didn’t do it. And that is why they need to wait and wait and wait. Because it makes it impossible for us to judge excellence in this era.
THR: But what about someone like Piazza, where there was suspicion but never actually any connection?
Ken Burns: Well, that’s the problem. This is what this whole thing does — who did and who didn’t? He should ask this guy; we’ve been talking about steroids for many, many years now.
Dave McMahon: I’m not sure we’ll ever know for certain, and I would even disagree with Ken that we don’t know Ichiro Suzuki didn’t use. Tom Boswell, when we were making “The 10th Inning” [of Baseball], told us that — he talked about how in this day and age, it was not acceptable that players used but understandable with all the pressures on them. And then he had this blind spot for Brady Anderson, who he watched for years, and he said, “No, I saw the stretches he did on that yoga ball; it makes sense that he went from 17 to 51 home runs in the course of a year. He definitely didn’t use.” And I thought: “We cannot know. We’re not in a place to judge unless we have hard evidence.”
THR: Maybe there can be a separate wing in the Hall of Fame for this era in baseball.
Ken Burns: Well, you have to understand, baseball is about statistics, but it’s mostly about stories. So if you look up 1919, it says that the Cincinnati Red Stockings won the World Series, not “*It was thrown by the Chicago White Sox, now known as the Chicago Black Sox.” What you need to do is look at that asterisked date and tell your child, your grandchild, what took place. So we’re obligated even with statistics to tell stories. And while we hope the steroid era is in the rearview mirror or at least receding, we know we’ve got a really complicated story to tell from the late ’80s to the late aughts.
THR: Maybe you can do an “11th Inning” on that.
Ken Burns: Well, we did “The 10th Inning” that dealt with most of this, and we hope that when we do “The 11th Inning” we’re not dealing with performance-enhancing drugs, we’re dealing with Stephen Strasburg, the greatest pitcher of all time, or Ichiro Suzuki having 4,000-plus hits in the major leagues as well as whatever he did in Japan.
THR: Are you going to do “The 11th Inning” now?
Ken Burns: We need a few things to happen. Like the Cubs win the World Series; that would automatically do it. A few things like that. But you know, there are a few things that never change. We know some pitchers extended their playing careers, we know some people hit the ball farther, but nobody hit .406, nobody had a 56-game hitting streak, no pitcher won 30 games, no pitcher won 35 games, no pitcher won 25 games. Maybe that helps you make it less onerous, but at the same time, those motherf—ers should suffer for a while.
THR: As for your new film, Central Park Five. The NYPD wanted filed a subpoena for your outtakes. What is the status of that?
Sarah Burns: We filed a motion to quash the subpoena, and we’re waiting for a judge to decide. But we haven’t turned anything over.
THR: Will you if they rule that way?
Sarah Burns: We’ll see what the judge has to say. I think it will depend on what the decision is and whether we can afford to continue this fight. We don’t have the resources of a huge studio behind us …
Ken Burns: Or the city of New York.
Sarah Burns: Or, as the city of New York does, to rack up millions of dollars in legal bills. But we really think we have the law on our side.
Ken Burns: We really believe the judge will rule in our favor.
THR: How do you think New York and the country have made progress since 1989, and how do you think it hasn’t?
Sarah Burns: I think things are certainly different here in New York; the city certainly looks different and feels different, but I don’t think enough has changed, and I certainly think that something like this could happen again. It is happening. And so the suspicions and assumptions about teenagers of color that I think played such a role in this story have not changed. The practices of the police and the things that require them to behave within a certain code have not changed. And I think there is definitely a lot of room for both reform in the system, and for us to change our attitudes to prevent something like this from happening again.
THR: Have you followed the Trayvon Martin case at all?
Ken Burns: Yeah, it happened right the month before we went to the Cannes Film Festival, and the French press and the critics were very anxious to talk about the film because it confirmed their very worst ideas about America’s racism. And they asked, “Could this happen again, 23 years later?” And I said: “Yeah, it just did, and a young black man is dead. If his skin color had been different, he would not be dead.” And that’s a horrible, horrible fact that underscores what Sarah has been saying, and I think this is part of our obligation, not just in this film but as human beings on this planet, to figure out how to stop doing this to each other.
THR: Having done The Civil War, did you see Spielberg’s Lincoln, and if so, what did you think?
Ken Burns: I have. It’s an extraordinary film.
THR: Did Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln bring life to him in the way you had imagined him?
Ken Burns: I felt at times privileged to have access to video from back at that time, before I shook my head and said, “Wait a second, they didn’t have any cameras in January of 1865.” It was pretty spectacular.
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