Central Park Five Documentary Review Essays

The documentary “The Central Park Five” revisits two New York nightmares. The first and most famous was the rape and beating of a 28-year-old white woman who, very early on April 20, 1989, was found in Central Park bound, gagged, nearly naked and nearly dead, her head crushed and shirt soaked in her blood. For years she was known only as the Central Park jogger, and her assailants were widely thought to be the five black and Latino teenagers, 14 to 16, who were arrested in the attack. The directors Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns argue that the convictions, and the years the defendants served for the crime they were later absolved of, were a second, racially motivated crime.

It is a crime that remains fresh in memory partly because it was so notorious, even though what looked like its final chapter was written a decade ago. In 2002 a New York State Supreme Court judge, Charles J. Tejada, after being presented with a confession and DNA evidence from a murderer and serial rapist, Matias Reyes, overturned the convictions of the men who became known as the Central Park Five. Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam had already served sentences of almost 7 to 13 years for the assault when they were exonerated. Their records were wiped clean, and they were also presumably liberated from the public stain of what the mayor at the time, Edward I. Koch, has called “the crime of the century.”

Like other documentaries that revisit injustices “The Central Park Five” positions itself as something of a public pardon. Equal measures criminal investigation, cultural exhumation and a consideration of race in a presumptively postracial America, it seeks to set the record straight. Measured in tone and outraged in its argument, it is an emotionally stirring, at times crushingly depressing cinematic call to witness. It’s also frustrating because while it re-examines the assault on the jogger and painstakingly walks you through what happened to the teenagers — from their arrest through their absolution — it fails to add anything substantively new. If you followed the news, the story will be familiar; if you lived in New York in 1989, it may also feel incomplete.

When the story broke, it was horrifying. The jogger, Trisha Meili (at the time, most of the news media didn’t identity her), had entered the park on April 19 at around 9 p.m. About 15 minutes later she was attacked. When she was found, the assumption was that she would die; instead she was comatose for several weeks. (When she woke, she had no memory of the attack.) As Ms. Burns writes in “The Central Park Five,” her 2011 book, the five teenagers had also been in the park that night, with a gang of about 30 kids who went after eight people, some violently. Each of the five said that he hadn’t participated in the rampage, and yet, after they were arrested for attacking Ms. Meili, most confessed to assaulting her. The confessions sealed their downfall.

Using broad strokes the filmmakers try to piece together why the teenagers confessed so readily and why everyone seemed eager to convict them. To that end the film sketches the New York of the 1980s as a battlefield, plagued by crime and reeling from the decimating shocks of a bad economy, AIDS, crack and racial explosions. Combatants, innocents and smaller battlegrounds flash by (Howard Beach, Bernhard H. Goetz) like the rapidly turned pages of a history book. The five teenagers were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were also the wrong color and the right suspects; the jogger was the perfect color and the right victim. The teenagers might have been up to “mischief,” as one of the movie’s interviewees blandly puts it, but they were effectively sacrificed on the altar of public opinion.

That’s true, yet the movie would be a lot stronger if it included everything that was in play back in 1989. Because the one thing that it fails to do persuasively is explain why so many people in New York, including African-Americans and professional skeptics writing in left-leaning publications like The Village Voice, almost immediately accepted that the teenagers were guilty and believed the police, with whom these same skeptics had often been often politically at odds. As the filmmakers accurately depict, the teenagers were soon demonized and dehumanized, accused of being members of a “wolf pack” that went “wilding” like animals. To judge from the documentary you might think that it was mostly the agenda-driven tabloids that lobbed these descriptions.

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Review: Why 'Central Park Five' Is the Most Important Documentary of Ken Burns' Career

One of the few documentarians whose name has solidified into a brand, Ken Burns’ style has even birthed its own noun: “The Ken Burns Effect” describes that overly familiar technique of zooming and panning across closeups of still images that Burns repeatedly uses in his historical documentaries. There’s a reason that Burns’ filmmaking tool has gained nearly as much prominence as the movies he uses it in: While impeccably researched and often stunningly comprehensive in their scholarly overviews of major historical events, Burns’ movies generally lack both immediacy or strong arguments about their subjects. Devoid of drama, a Burns PBS documentary takes a patient, measured approach to surveying lengthy historical periods that’s embodied by the effect bearing his name.  

“The Central Park Five,” which opens in several cities this Friday, provides a welcome exception to the usual Burns routine. Part of its distinction unquestionably comes from the other names associated with the project: Burns co-directed the movie with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon; the subject matter is partly derived from Sarah Burns’ book “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding,” released last year. Nevertheless, Ken Burns is both credited as one of the directors and has been front and center promoting its release, leaving no doubt that he retains a fair amount of authorship over the material. For that reason, its polemical content stands out in his oeuvre and deserves recognition as his most important feature-length achievement.

The movie casts a judgmental eye at the New York City Police Department and the city’s prosecutorial system that led five Harlem teenagers to spend their young adulthood behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit. The convictions were the result of the infamous 1989 case of “The Central Park Jogger,” when a white woman in her twenties (later revealed to be Trisha Meili) was attacked during a late night jog, raped and left in a debilitating coma.

The teens, who ranged in age from 14 to 16, faced the NYPD’s Machiavellian interrogation techniques that goaded them to confess to the attack in the hopes that they might face a lenient judgement. Instead, they wound up spending years in jail, only to become exonerated in 2002 when Matias Reyes confessed to acting solo in the crime. Burns and his co-directors use contemporary interviews with the previously convicted men and others familiar with the case alongside plentiful archival footage, including the videotaped confessions of the terrified teens, to make the unequivocal case against a broken judicial process steeped in class and race biases that destroyed lives.

READ MORE: ‘The Central Park 5’ On Criticwire

Needless to say, you’re unlikely to find such extreme indictments in “The Dust Bowl,” Burns’ newly broadcast two-part history of the infamous drought and widespread suffering that afflicted America’s lower class during the Great Depression. “Dust Bowl,” which premiered on PBS last night and concludes with its second half this evening, contains interviews with 26 survivors of the era. By most indications (I have only watched some of it), “Dust Bowl” automatically assumes a place in the pantheon of first-rate scholarship that defines Burns’ PBS work. But while the TV movie may offer a complex perspective on history, it lacks the power to change it.

“Central Park Five” sets out to do exactly that. In addition to providing a comprehensive, documented evidence that the eponymous suspects were forced into providing the unreliable testimony that led to their incarceration, the movie lays bear the grotesque biases of early nineties American society, unveiling a situation far more backward than a lot of people remember it. Newspaper headlines declare that the accused engaged in “wilding,” a term confounding for its racist implications insofar as it makes generalizations about the gang behaviors of Harlem teens. The footage of protests against the convictions, marked by a portly Al Sharpton, would not look out of place in a documentary about the early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement. By magnifying how a supposedly progressive society remained tethered to old world biases even in the final decade of the twentieth century, “Central Park 5” implies that such issues continue to haunt the justice system today, whether or not we can see them in the moment.

With an editing approach that seamlessly blends past and present, “Central Park Five” contains a fluid, engaging storytelling that does away with the dry voiceover commentary and theatrical music choices that typically account for the narrative flow of most Burns films. Instead, the testimonies of the men who were jailed for the crime create a startling ongoing contrast to the open-and-shut nature of the proceedings. With the exception of the one subject who chose not to reveal his face on camera, their pained expressions transform “Central Park Five” into a work of anger that still reverberates today.  

The movie validates emotions that the Central Park Five have struggled previously to express in a 2003 civil suit in which the five men have asked for $50 million each to compensate for the misconduct on the part of various lawmen — none of whom agreed to appear in the documentary. If the perspective of “Central Park Five” is slanted — and it is, necessarily so — nobody made any effort to counter its arguments on camera. As a result, the documentary advocates for rectifying the damage done against its subjects, and has garnered enough attention that city officials have demanded the filmmakers provide them with full documentation of the interviews. Citing journalistic privileges, the trio have resisted a subpoena, forcing a battle nearly forgotten by history back into the limelight. At under two hours, “Central Park 5” might be Burns’ shortest directorial credit in years. Its real ending hasn’t been written yet.

Criticwire grade: A-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well-received at festivals ranging from Cannes to Telluride, “Central Park 5” hits theaters this Friday and is currently available on VOD. Bound to continue generating headlines, the film should see strong theatrical business and solid prospects at maintaining visibility during award season.

Watch Ken Burns discuss his refusal to hand over video from “Central Park 5” to the NYPD below:
 

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