The Central Park Five
Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Screenplay by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
How long is The Central Park Five? 95 minutes.
What is The Central Park Five rated? No MPAA Rating.
With tender and conscientious insight,
“The Central Park Five” is a rallying call for change.
As children we are taught that the police are our friends and that we should seek them out when we or someone else is in trouble. We are told to trust the police and to listen to what they say. So what happens when those men and women, who have promised to “protect and serve,” maliciously and intentionally destroy the lives of five innocent boys? As we have seen in an increasing number of documentary films (this year’s West of Memphis) and television series (48 Hrs. Mysteries), the police are not always the good guys.
The new documentary The Central Park Five should make you angry. Gripping from its first minutes, the film examines the tragic case of five young men who were wrongfully arrested for beating and raping a woman. Shockingly, the youths, whose ages ranged from 14-16, were convicted of the crime, resulting in prison sentences of varying lengths. More importantly, though, it deprived the young men of the last years of their childhood and, in hindsight, serves to expose the myriad injustices and prejudices within law enforcement and the judicial process.
Directed by Ken Burns (The Civil War, Prohibition), Sarah Burns and David McMahon, The Central Park Five is a heartbreaking story of five young men (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise) who were repeatedly lied to by the New York City Police Department and coerced into confessing to a crime with which they had no involvement. In 1989, a New York woman jogging through Central Park was attacked, beaten, raped and left clinging to life. A passerby discovered the woman and called the police. The jogger was rushed to the hospital and detectives began examining the crime scene for evidence.
Around the same time, a group of 25 teenagers was making their way through the park, causing trouble (throwing rocks at bicyclists, shouting insults) as they went. After police received reports that a pack of black youths were harassing people for no reason, several of the young men were brought in for questioning in relation to the woman’s rape. As minors, they should have been questioned in the presence of a parent, guardian or lawyer, but none were present. The police grilled the boys for over 12 hours, eventually convincing each one that the others were trying to blame the rape on them. The cops could “let them go home” if they would just tell them what happened, i.e. admit to the bogus story the detectives were crafting for them.
Throughout the film, we are able to see atrocities that are committed by the New York Police Department and the District Attorney’s office. The film places the boys’ arrest and trial within the larger picture of a city that was, at the time, eating itself from the inside: crime and drugs were everywhere; random acts of violence were a daily reality; and the chasm between haves and have-nots was seemingly growing wider every day. The Central Park Five, as they came to be known, personified people’s fears while at the same time giving them a visual representation of who or what they should hate.
In the early 2000s, Sarah Burns began writing a book about the Central Park Five and their experiences. She and her husband, David McMahon, decided that the boys’ nightmare and the immoral behavior of the police warranted expanding her investigation into the documentary format. With the help of Sarah’s father, Ken Burns, possibly the most respected documentarian alive, the film came into being. Using a mix of archival news footage, stock footage of 1980s New York and very intimate interviews with the men (except Antron McCray who would only allow his voice to be heard), The Central Park Five does a wonderful job capturing the animosity of New Yorkers towards the young men. Comparing them to animals and calling them sociopaths, the citizens coalesced into a mob that demanded blood, making the district attorney’s job that much easier.
The Central Park Five is equally riveting and infuriating. The directors have crafted a film that leaves no doubt as to who is really to blame for the boys’ traumatic ordeals. Allowing the men to tell the story of what really happened after all these years is, in some small way, a tremendous example of justice being done.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”