‘The Central Park Five’ is a compelling documentary from Ken Burns

'The Central Park Five' examines a rape case that rocked New York City, and in some ways remains unresolved
‘The Central Park Five’ examines a rape case that rocked New York City in 1989, and in some ways remains unresolved

There is no debate about some of the facts regarding what happened in New York’s Central Park on April 19, 1989.  A female jogger was raped and beaten nearly to death.  There was a group of between 20 and 30 or more teens that went on a rampage in the park, committing acts of violence and intimidation.  Five teens, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam were part of that group of teens for at least part of their activities.

The anger and rage the city felt boiled over in the wake of a young, attractive, successful, white woman being assaulted and nearly killed by black teens. There was intense pressure to find and punish those responsible.  The five were taken into police custody and interrogated relentlessly. Four of the five teens listed above ultimately confessed to being involved in the assault although they all implicated others in the actual rape.  The fifth, Salaam did make some verbal admissions but refused to allow the videotaping of his “confession”, something that took place in the case of the other four.

They were ultimately convicted and sent to prison.  For a crime that all five denied having committed after they were no longer being pressured and intimidated by police.

This is where the new documentary film from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, The Central Park Five,  begins.  With the events that led up to this rape and assault and how these teens ended up confessing to something they maintain to this day that they did not do.  The filmmakers conduct an examination of what transpired, as well as documenting the course of events in the aftermath of this tragic incident.

Typically, the names of juvenile offenders are not released to the media until after they are charged or indicted. That was not the case here.  Normally the name of a rape victim is not released, but two black-owned newspapers continued to publish her name in the wake of other media continuing to name the teens accused in the case.  There was a prosecution, convictions for all five and prison time, which four of them served and were released.  The fifth was still in prison when he ran into Mattias Reyes, who would later confess to the crime for which the five were accused, leading ultimately to their exoneration.

Ken Burns is a master of the documentary form and he is on his game here.  The overwhelming majority of the pertinent facts are brought to light.  He doesn’t ignore that the lead prosecutor continues to this day to maintain she felt the five were guilty.  Although one of the five refused to appear on camera, Burns managed to tell his story as well, with the use of photos and video imagery from the era of the incident and through narration.  Five lives were for the most part ruined, in addition to that of the victim.  The visuals are stark and revealing.  The use of titles is done to great effect.

The saddest part of the tale is how this has affected the lives of the five and how their search for ultimate justice has been denied.  Several of them filed suit against the City of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress in 2003.

That lawsuit remains unresolved at this date.

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