The Central Park Five | Movie review
Ken Burns examines a famous miscarriage of justice.
So long as our justice system can be twisted to condemn the marginalized and manufacture scapegoats, there will be a place for documentaries like The Central Park Five. As in Paradise Lost, much of the fascination—and horror—lies in witnessing the machinations of legal corruption, albeit retrospectively in this instance.
Working with his daughter Sarah, who wrote a book on the subject, and regular collaborator David McMahon, Ken Burns dives into the headlines-grabbing case of the Central Park jogger found raped and severely beaten in April 1989. Facing citywide pressure to catch the guilty party, the NYPD rounded up a small group of black and Latino youths. After hours of heated interrogation, four of these scared-shitless teens had copped to a crime they hadn’t committed; a fifth, who remained silent, was thrown under the bus by the others. The so-called Central Park Five were convicted on the basis of their wildly conflicting confessions, despite DNA evidence that didn’t add up and suspicions of police coercion.
Some of this information is relayed by the condemned themselves, now grown and exonerated. If nothing else, The Central Park Five is valuable for the way it affords these men a voice—a chance not just to talk about their ordeal, but to respond to everything that was said and written about them at the time. Burns, digging deep into the research, curbs his penchant for misty-eyed historical romanticism. His doc is several things at once: a close study in the process of securing false confessions; a vision of a city engulfed by racial animosity; and, perhaps most damningly, an indictment of the media that demonized these innocent kids. For the director of The Civil War, such polemical outrage marks a bona fide reinvention.