Directed by: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Premise: A documentary film. In 1987 a jogger in New York’s Central Park was viciously beaten and sexually assaulted. Five African American and Latino teenagers were arrested and convicted of the crime but after serving years in prison the charges were dismissed when the real assailant confessed.
What Works: The Central Park Five is a very well made piece of film. Director Ken Burns has made a lot of great documentaries but The Central Park Five may be his most technically accomplished production. The picture is extremely well shot and edited together very smartly. The filmmakers utilize archival and contemporary footage, contrasting and connecting the past with the present. The Central Park Five is a story about a group of teenagers who got caught up in events much bigger than their own lives and it is a thoughtful and frightening examination of how individuals can be overcome by larger forces in society. This film deals with heavy themes, such as the assumption of guilt, especially with regard to African American men, how that guilt is magnified and legitimatized by the press and law enforcement officials, how a rush to judgment can lead to sloppy work that perpetuates injustice, and how institutions will fight to defend the status quo even in the face of incontestable facts. Those themes are dealt with intelligently and sensitively in this film but despite the weight and intangible nature of those concepts, the filmmakers of The Central Park Five keep the focus on the accused and thereby maintain the humanity of the story. An especially admirable choice by the filmmakers was the decision to present the men in a holistic way that includes their flaws. The men admit to other wrongdoings, unrelated to the attack on the jogger. This grants them a dimension of fallibility and humanity, as confessions usually do, which serves a rhetorical function to put the audience on their side. The humanistic, as opposed to angelic, portrayal of these men also gives the documentary credibility. It signals to the audience that the filmmakers are being straight with them and it opens viewers to be receptive to the sometimes staggering twists that occur later in the documentary. As much as the story of The Central Park Five is about these men, it is also about the city of New York and the way its citizens, media, and institutions reacted to the crime. The filmmakers set the social scene of New York in the late 1980s; it was underlined by a volatile racial and economic divide, a toxic drug war, and a deadly crime rate. This background provides a context for what happened and why and how the case was viewed differently by people of various backgrounds. And that is part of what makes this film extraordinary: The Central Park Five is not just about its titular case. This is an examination of a case that exposes broad and deep seeded issues regarding race and justice that have yet to work themselves out in American culture.
What Doesn’t: There are two voices conspicuously missing from The Central Park Five. One of those is the jogger. Given the nature of the crime and the fact that she had no memory of the attack due to her injuries her absence is understandable. The other missing voice is that of the prosecution. The film states that the New York City Police Department and the prosecutor’s office refused to have anything to do with this documentary. Given the way that the department comes off in the narrative their absence is no surprise but it is a loss for the film. The Central Park Five is partly about the failure of the criminal justice system and the reflections of the people involved in eliciting the confessions and prosecuting the case would have been a valuable addition to the film. It is also worth mentioning that there is an ongoing civil lawsuit brought by the Central Park Five against the city of New York that is still unresolved.
DVD extras: Featurettes on the making of the film and on the lives of the Central Park Five after their release from prison.
Bottom Line: The Central Park Five is a very important document of very important case. Aside from being a riveting story and a well-made film, this is the kind of documentary that is able to take a specific event and link it to issues that live on past its particular circumstances.
Episode: #449 (July 28, 2013)