The American justice system — and American society — are indicted for institutionalized racism in “The Central Park Five,” a gripping investigative docu from co-directors Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon. Mixing a breathtaking array of archival materials with new talking-head interviews, the film analyzes the monumental miscarriage of justice repped by the 1989 “Central Park Jogger” case, where five minority teens were coerced into false confessions, then convicted despite a dearth of solid evidence. With wrongful-conviction suits still pending, the pic could draw select theatrical bookings in advance of its forthcoming PBS broadcast slot.
Developing at a time when New York was beset by violent crime and facing deepening rifts between races and classes, the case grew out of two undisputed facts: that on the evening of April 19, 1989, a group of African-American and Latino youths ran wild through New York’s Central Park, harassing and assaulting joggers and cyclists, and that in the wee hours of April 20, a white female jogger — beaten, raped and barely alive — was discovered not far from where the boys rampaged. Contextualizing these two events –finally proved unrelated some 13 years later — the helmers show how the aggressive tactics and rush to judgment by police and prosecutors easily intimidated underage suspects not fully aware of their rights, and a media frenzy that sparked public outrage catalyzed the modern-day equivalent of a lynching for defendants Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise.
Drawing on the groundwork done for the book “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding,” by Sarah Burns (who met two of the men while interning at a law firm), the impressively researched docu eschews voiceover narration. Instead, the title characters, their relatives and a talking-heads cast of journalists, activists, social commentators and politicians (including former New York mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins) recount bits of the story, driven by masterful, fast-paced editing that intertwines their commentary with excerpts from the videotaped confessions, trial transcripts and other period materials.
This approach pulls viewers deeply into the case and allows them to draw their own conclusions, even as they see how a compelling narrative from authority figures, coupled with the false confessions from the accused, trumped missing and contradictory evidence. Among the pic’s many appalling revelations, perhaps the most shocking is how the false confessions were practically dictated to the browbeaten lads.
Chief criticism of the docu is that it never clearly explains exactly what the boys were doing in the park that night, or whether they may have participated in other attacks. Even if the by now grown men don’t provide details of their youthful romp in the park, they speak candidly, and often with great emotion, about everything else. Although McCray chose not to appear oncamera, he still participated with interviewers so that his voice could be heard.
The five are proud that their convictions were vacated in 2002, but as the film points out, their innocence never received the same attention as their putative guilt, and they are still struggling today with the repercussions. In 2003, Richardson, Santana and McCray sued the city of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress, but the city has refused to settle the case. The filmmakers hope that a theatrical release and resulting publicity will prompt a swift and just settlement.
Despite being sized for the smallscreen, the artful craft package is cinematic.