Critically acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns (along with co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon) is almost deceptive in his approach with his latest documentary, The Central Park Five. Audiences may be prepared for a movie about a group of young black and Hispanic men, wrongfully convicted of one of the crimes of the century—raping and nearly killing a woman (known famously as the Central Park Jogger) out on her nightly run in Central Park. However, this brilliant documentary is actually about the human psyche—specifically the ego—and the lengths to which all members of society (police, lawyers, members of the media, the innocent and the guilty) will go to preserve it.
The Central Park Five opens with a haunting and unforgettable recorded confession. As the true rapist, Matias Reyes, describes his vicious crime (while serving a life sentence for other crimes, including rape), viewers are simultaneously introduced to the names of the Central Park Five—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam—all teenagers when they were convicted of another man’s crime. With a mosaic of family photos and touching narratives from the men themselves, Burns carefully introduces his subjects (one of whom refused to appear on camera, desperate to maintain his current life) and their families and the audience almost immediately aligns with them. Raised in poor, but pleasant homes (some by single mothers, others not), they all went to school, had their close friends, and occasionally got into some harmless trouble. On one night in particular, they were truly in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the five admitted to the one crime he did commit that night—hopping a subway turnstile.
The Central Park Five pays due diligence to the story of the true criminal and the woman who survived the attack (Trisha Meili), and also gives a long-overdue voice to the five men. However, one could still argue that the documentary is primarily concerned with the ignorant, vicious, racially charged political and social atmospheres that worked to convict this group of innocent men. The movie really begins to take off with stark depictions of the reactions of city- (and nation-) wide reactions to the jogger’s brutal attack. Cultural theorists and members of the media who were firsthand witnesses of the events that unfolded following the arrests of the young men explained that the true source of public outrage must primarily be attributed to the fact that the woman was a white investment banker jogging in Central Park. (Ed Koch, who was acting mayor of New York City at the time of the attack, even goes so far as to describe the park as the holy land of the city.) Burns brilliantly juxtaposes the story of a young black woman who was raped, then thrown off of a building to her death around the same time as the Central Park Jogger’s attack. Unlike Meili, she had not graduated from Yale and she did not work on Wall Street; her story received little press. Burns includes footage of people like Donald Trump, speaking out and demanding swift and hard justice for the victim (all of which added pressure to the police on the case). Headlines in the news were eerily similar to headlines from Jim Crow South, as readers were warned of the dangerous black men in their midst. In many ways The Central Park Five is a portrait of New York City in 1989, a portrait that bears a horrifyingly striking resemblance to Mississippi or Alabama in the 1940s.
The Central Park Five is such a moving piece of work, it is difficult to watch at times. Viewers are witnessing, for all intents and purposes, a modern-day lynching that actually took place in the ’90s. In his unflinching tale of crime, punishment, racial hysteria and ego, Burns holds an entire society, an entire way of thinking, accountable for its role in the true crime of the century—the collective effort to imprison five innocent young men. Journalists, critics, police, jurors, teachers and citizens who remained silent in the midst of strong evidence and gut instinct all participated in the destructive mob mentality that destroyed young lives. Although the story of the Central Park Five has a seemingly happy ending—in 2002 the men were exonerated when the actual rapist confessed—the warning is still there for our generation and for the next: Beware.
Director: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Writer: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Starring: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana
Release Date: Nov. 23, 2012