THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE
Written, Produced and Directed by: Sarah Burns, David McMahon, and Ken Burns
Director Ken Burns has garnered a following and massive amounts of critical acclaim with his documentaries on subjects spanning from America’s favorite pastime (baseball) to a music genre most people abhor (jazz). This time around, he takes a stab at co-directing with daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon for the social injustice documentary THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, which tells the story of five innocent men and their horrific ordeal with police and the judicial system. So is Burns able to handle the complex, expansive material with the dexterity seen in his previous works, or does it fall flat? The results may surprise you.
In 1989, a white female jogger was horrifically beaten, raped, and left for dead in New York City’s Central Park. Around the same time, five black and Latino teen boys from Harlem (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam) were held under suspicion for different random assaults in the area that night (referred to as “wilding”). The public outcry against them was immediate. Wrongly accused by the Central Park Police and the NYPD, the boys became the scapegoats in a citywide frenzy, and used as pawns in the courts. A travesty on all accounts, the teens were forced to grow up quick behind bars as the world drastically changed around them. It wasn’t until many years later that the truth of what actually happened that night leaked out. But was anyone listening?
The story of these boys – now men – is what’s ultimately compelling and riveting about the film, not necessarily the format of the documentary. Clearly their wounds are still as fresh as the day it happened, and you can’t help but be moved to tears by their engrossing and impassioned tale of the misappropriation of justice. The film relies on very traditional means to get the story across: Photos, newspaper clippings, courtroom sketches, and interviews with key players, historians, and journalists. Music from the time also helps to set the stage for the atrocities to come. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, infuriating, and frightening what happened to these men – but because of the talent involved here, I had hoped the film would be a bit more dynamic than, say, a Dateline NBC episode.
Nevertheless, these men, whose identities will be linked together for the rest of time, and their story deserves to be told – not only as a cautionary tale to help others, but for the personal exoneration and respect that was never paid to them in full. The charges may have been dropped, but the social stigma still remains. This film is hoping to alter that perception. And what better way to do so than through cinema – the most powerful medium. While the guys may have been given their redemption, it will never bring back their lost youth. By keeping their story alive, however, it will show the world that they aren’t forgotten.
THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE plays AFI Fest on November 4 and 5. The film opens November 23rd in New York and November 30th in Los Angeles.