The Central Park Five
Details: 120 mins, United States, English
Synopsis: In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were arrested and laterconvicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park. They spent between 6 and 13 years in prison before a serial rapist confessed that he alone had committed the crime, leading to their convictions being overturned. Set against a backdrop of a decaying city beset by violence and racial tension, the film tells the story of that horrific crime, the rush to judgment by the police, a media clamoring for sensational stories and an outraged public, and the five lives upended by this miscarriage of justice.
Advocacy documentary exposes its own bias.
Somehow Burns and his co-directors wind up telling us less than we might have hoped and more than we could imagine.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: In his introduction to a screening of The Central Park Five, director Ken Burns thanked the audience for coming to such a “difficult film.” The account that followed of the interrogation and conviction of five New York City minors for the 1989 rape and beating of a 28-year-old woman was indeed difficult—in subject, if not in form.
The documentary seeks to revise the public history of that case, first and foremost. So one of the first things we hear is the 2002 confession to the crime by convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes, which he intended to exonerate the innocent five, who by that time had served almost 50 years combined. Next is New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer (who has written a book about wrongful convictions) suggesting that this is a case of a lot of otherwise capable people not doing their jobs. I thought of my friend, who had tried to convince me to skip The Central Park Five and join him at another screening. “You already know that story,” he’d said. “Incompetence and bigotry puts innocent black people in prison; what else can they tell you?”
Somehow Burns and his co-directors (daughter Sarah Burns, who has written a book about the case, and her husband David McMahon) wind up telling us less than we might have hoped and more than we could imagine. All of the five appear here to tell their story except one, who submitted only to an audio interview to protect his privacy. Footage of their interrogation videos is also featured, and together with minimal recreation we are given a sense of how all but one of these boys was pressured and manipulated into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. Twenty years’ hindsight adds a horrible pathos to the moment, for instance, when a Pepsi is cracked open for one of the exhausted, disoriented boys just before a prosecution lawyer begins guiding him into his own undoing.
None of the lawyers or detectives involved in the prosecution appears here, a gap that works against an entirely credible account of a miscarriage of justice. The five don’t need overt bias to make their story convincing; the feeling that there is a more layered and perhaps even more damning version of this story to be told lingers. (For now you can always return to Joan Didion’s essay on the subject, “Sentimental Journeys.” ) The comments—then and now—on the case made by then-New York City mayor Ed Koch only adds to that feeling. Can it be true that a beast like Reyes is actually possessed of more conscience than the men and women who worked to lock these kids up?
As Burns later said, when it became clear that neither the victim herself nor the prosecution team involved would participate, they decided to make their project one of restoring a voice to their central subjects. The police and the lawyers and the media had already told their versions. Here, finally, is the boys’ chance to testify to the confluence of events and circumstances (which the filmmakers flesh out with the context of a city in the throes of economic depression and crime) that changed the course of their lives. In that sense the effort is to be applauded, and yet The Central Park Five leaves you feeling like a good deed does not necessarily make a good documentary.
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