Ken Burns’s documentary “The Central Park 5” (it was co-directed with Sarah Burns and David McMahon) begins with the recounting of the rape of a jogger in the park during April of 1989, the trigger event of a woefully tragic story. Working with his daughter and son-in-law, Burns has created a nearly flawless film about the cracks in our criminal justice system, zeroing in on the “us vs. them” mentality that became the thrust for the shambolic police work and legal case which followed.
Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Kharey Wise, and Raymond Santana were the five black and Latino boys who wound up being accused of this horrific crime. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as these guys were just some of many boys in the park that night when something called “wildin”, ie., attacking people for fun, broke out. The boys were arrested and roughed up but none could have predicted what would come next.
Burns shines a light on the police interrogation tactics (intimidation, manipulation, and coercion) which helped extirp confessions out of suspects. After a while the truth doesn’t even matter anymore. Through old news footage and one-on-one interviews with these formerly-accused rapists, Burns sets up the scenario in which these scared-shitless teenagers turned on each other after nearly a day of being probed and prodded because as one interviewee points out, after a while it just seemed better to fake being a witness to the crime than to actually be named a suspect.
In order to add context to this story “Five” goes wide, recalling via news footage and images the 80s, a period of electrically-charged racial tension during which New York was known as the capital of racial violence and minorities were perceived as a threat. That year, 3,254 rapes were committed, Governor Cuomo telling the New York Post following the Central Park rape, “this is the ultimate shriek of alarm.”
As Burns tells it there was a feeling that the public and the media both unsurprisingly identified more with the rape victim, but we’re not made privy to why the media didn’t latch on to the discrepancies and conflicting evidence in the case.
“Central Park Five” is a spellbinding film about five guys who went through and are still going through something that changed their lives forever. Few other films this year have been more powerful.