Ken Burns Blasts Donald Trump Over Comments on Central Park Five: "The Height of Vulgarity"

Ken Burns - Donald Trump - Split - H - 2016
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"How would I, a documentary filmmaker, ascribe motive to a narcissistic personality who has a significant disorder here?" says the celebrated 'Civil War' director. "He needs to be examined by a psychiatrist."

Another day, another shocking turn in Donald Trump's run for the White House.

Now the Republican presidential candidate is making headlines for a statement on "the Central Park Five" — five former New York City teens, four black and one Latino — accused of gang-raping a white woman jogging in Central Park in 1989.

At the time, Trump took out full-page ads in all four major New York daily newspapers which in large black letters read, "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!" The boys' convictions were vacated in 2002 when another man, Matias Reyes, confessed to the attack while serving time for multiple murders; DNA collected at the scene proved a match. By then all five, now grown men, had served their sentences, ranging from seven to 13 years.

Twenty-seven years later and now poised to win the presidency, Trump remains convinced of their guilt. He told CNN on Friday, "They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same."

Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns partnered with his daughter Sarah Burns on a 2012 film — The Central Park Five — that helped once and for all to clear the names of all involved. That in turn led the city of New York in 2014 to settle a lawsuit filed against it by the men in 2003, awarding them $41 million.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Burns shortly after Trump's comments on the Central Park Five were made public. Like his commencement remarks revealed last June at Stanford, he views Trump not as a candidate, but as an existential threat to the country. This is a slightly edited version of that conversation.

I suppose you’ve seen the comments made by Donald Trump saying he believes the Central Park Five are still guilty and have gotten away with a heinous crime. After having spent so much time with them making your 2012 documentary, The Central Park Five, how do you respond to that?

It’s just so patently untrue — and he knows it’s untrue. This is out and out racism. This is a man who finds it impossible to apologize and so he needs to double-down on what we know is untrue. We know this: They were exonerated by a court of law for the crime they served full sentences for. The reason they served the full sentences is because they refused to take a plea bargain and they refused at parole hearings to admit their guilt because they were innocent. They were proved innocent by DNA evidence and the judge vacated their convictions. Several years after that, the city of New York settled with them for time that no amount of money could possibly repay them for. 

In his statement, Trump says the Central Park Five "admitted they were guilty" back in 1989.

The original thing that they “admitted it” is so specious that it barely warrants a response. They had coerced confessions. They were subjected to questioning by seasoned detectives. These were two 14-year-olds, two 15-year-olds and one developmentally challenged 16-year-old. They were interrogated for up to 30 hours, without food, water or parents. They were lied to and told that if they implicated someone else they would be able to go home. When they finally did, at their parents’ urging, they not only did not go home, they went to jail for between seven and 13 years. And in fact every single one of their “confessions” has the absence of the sixth person — whose DNA was the only DNA found at the scene. As the eldest, Korey Wise, sat in jail at a maximum security prison, this sociopathic murderer named Matias Reyes, who because of police incompetence went on to murder other people that year — a woman and her unborn child, as well as rape other women — he confessed. His DNA matched the DNA, 13 years old, that they had been sitting on unable to match with anyone else. And none of the boys statements suggested that there was anyone else at the scene of the crime.

What did Trump do back in 1989 to turn public opinion against these five boys?

At the time, Donald Trump took out full-page ads in all of the New York dailies — that included Newsday as well as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New York Post and the Daily News — asking to bring back the death penalty. And in essence, in the vague way that he always does, implicit threats of “Second Amendment remedies” more recently, essentially asking for these boys who were innocent to be executed. And even though he knows he’s wrong he continues to hold to this complete fabrication. It is the height of vulgarity. And I actually don’t think anyone wants a president so vulgar as Donald Trump.

What could possibly be his motive to press on asserting their guilt when he knows they are innocent?

How would I, a documentary filmmaker, ascribe motive to a narcissistic personality who has a significant disorder here. He needs to be examined by a psychiatrist. I can’t do that. No one can do it from afar. He is just, in the simple facts of this case, dead wrong. And he continues to perpetuate racial stereotypes that are inexcusable in the 21st century for a person purportedly qualified for the highest office in the land. He ought to be ashamed of himself. I don’t mean to be so vague and equivocal here.

You’re definitely not mincing words. As one of our most preeminent American historians, what do you make of Trump in a historical context? Have we seen the likes of him before?

As the distinguished historian William Leuchtenburg, the dean of American historians whose expertise is the presidents, said, essentially there is no precedent in American history for this. We’ve seen aspects of this xenophobia in the [19th century-era] Know-Nothing Party; in anti-immigrant sentiment that periodically raises its head. But we have to go to other places to find an example. I would direct you to Michiko Kakutani’s review a week ago Thursday in The New York Times of a biography of Adolf Hitler. And the bullet points she listed of his rise to power, without mentioning our current political situation or the two people running for office, it is terrifyingly similar to that.

There's no question that this election feels different from any other.

I believe, and I have said this before, that this candidacy and potential presidency represents the greatest threat to the United States since the Second World War. Period. And I don’t know a historian that disagrees with me. I would refer you to David McCullough’s statement, to William Leuchtenburg’s statement, our greatest American historians weighing in on the significance of this most unqualified person in the 216 years of contested contests for president of the United States. [The messages are collected at the Facebook page Historians on Donald Trump.] There have sometimes been bitter divisions and bitter comments but no one has been so dissembling. No one has lied more frequently. No one presents a greater threat to the survival of our union than this candidate.

Have you thought at all about why Trump has done as well as he has?

I think the media. In the way that ratings breeds journalistic responsibility, never in the history of politics has one person received so much free media. Exponentially greater than the next person. Nobody had ever seen an election where we waited every single day with a little box in the corner of our TV sets focused on some tarmac or some set of American flags at some rally waiting, hoping for him to say something that will be good copy. He’s always good copy. He’s known this, as all good demagogues and dictators do. And so he has simply taken advantage of that.

What do you advise Americans do?

I think he has played to people’s worst fears and not their better angels. We’ve got to focus now on those better angels of our nature and focus on Nov. 8 and what we do to heal. Because I don’t believe that we want people to be this demonizing of the other. To make the person who disagrees with you politically somehow evil is the worst thing in the world. And that’s what this campaign is about: To mock Hillary’s illness; to denigrate a Gold Star family; to take on [the Central Park Five], five defenseless minority kids and then to do so again 27 years later is just beyond the pale. It’s back to the McCarthy hearings. He has no shame. And let’s remember his mentor is Roy Cohn, who was the attorney to Joseph McCarthy — so maybe there at least one precedent, which is that the reptilian behavior of Joseph McCarthy has been fully realized in the campaign of Donald Trump.

Trump claims to want to clean up and secure African-American neighborhoods. Do you think what happened to the Central Park Five is just a taste of what’s to come for young black men should he become our next president?

Of course. Besides the huge and immediate economic disaster that his presidency represents, the incredibly challenging foreign policy predicaments he will put us in. I would not put it past Putin to on the day Trump is elected march into the rest of the Ukraine and then takes over the rest of the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — something that Trump has essentially given him permission to do. But let’s assume the world isn’t completely falling apart, that there is still an economy a few hours after he is elected. I think African-Americans are at the greatest jeopardy, as they’ve been since the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the mid-1960s.

Does his perceived racism serve a larger purpose?

The fact that Trump is playing with these lives, this is beyond racism. This is just the classic demonization that demagogues and dictators employ. We’re better than this and the vulgarity of this is shocking and extreme to me. Sorry to rant but I just got out of a lecture and read what he was saying and I can’t believe he would bring it up. To me, this is the Muslim thing all over again. He cannot stop demonizing people. He says that he has a superior intellect because of his German background. That’s Aryan superiority. I mean, come on, we’ve done this before.

I spoke recently with a Nazi humor expert who was reluctant to draw a direct line between Hitler and Trump. You demonstrate no such reluctance.

May I tell you something because you’re in Hollywood? The last time I was in Hollywood, in July, I was at the Skirball Center screening our film Defying the Nazis: The Sharp's War, about a Unitarian minister and his wife who saved Jews on the eve of the Holocaust. Two survivors of the concentration camps, both women, came up to me and said, “Is this going to happen to us again?” The fact that they even think of that! Then two and a half weeks ago I was in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and a woman from Poland, saved by Catholics, was absolutely certain that this was going to happen and she was shaking with fear. The fact that women in their 80s and 90s should have this feeling living in the United States of America ought to wake everybody up right now. Right now. This is the classic cliche — that the only way for evil to triumph is for the good people to do nothing. 

I don’t normally think of you as a political person.

No, no. I throw fastballs down the middle of the plate. [Historian] David McCullough tells me he has never spoken about contemporary politics, nor have I, on the hustings talking about our books or our films. And this year he has and he is aghast. I just finished a Vietnam film, 10 episodes, 18 hours, that will be out next September. We have pundits from the extreme left to the extreme right. We represent all those views. This isn’t a Red State-Blue State commentary I’m doing. This is not conservative or liberal. This is an American issue because this person is espousing un-American values of intolerance, of hatred, that are not the hallmarks of the United States. There has been no one who has run for president like him.