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The Central Park Five (2012)

December 29, 2012



written by Sarah Burns, Ken Burns and David McMahon

directed by: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon

rating: not rated

runtime: 120 min.

U.S. release date: November 23, 2012 (currently available On-Demand) 


In 1988, filmmaker Errol Morris released his seminal documentary, “The Thin Blue Line” which documented the case of Randall Adams, a man wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in Texas.   The film so strongly presented its case of Adams’ innocence that the verdict was subsequently overruled by the Texas Court of Appeals, and he was released from prison.  Aside from being a groundbreaking work in the documentary format, “The Thin Blue Line” showed that films like this could have real world implications, that they had the power to change established viewpoints and perhaps even to correct injustices in our society.

Documentarian Ken Burns has solidified his place in our American cultural history with his fantastic television miniseries “The Civil War”, “Jazz” and “Baseball” among others.  His mixture of archival photographs and news footage with insightful interviews has become the template for successful documentaries.  But now for the first time in his career he has moved into the film world with the feature-length documentary “The Central Park Five”.  Co-written and directed with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, the film takes a unique departure from Burns’ usual style, offering up a stinging indictment of racial profiling and injustice in what is easily the most powerful documentary of the year.

On the evening of April 19, 1989, a female jogger running through Central Park was brutally beaten, raped and left for dead.  Elsewhere in the southern part of the park, a group of 25-30 kids, mainly black and Latino teenagers, were causing juvenile mayhem, throwing rocks at cars and even beating up a homeless man.  When this wild night was over, the New York City police had taken 5 of the young men into custody, and through intimidation, coercion and flat-out lies, gotten videotaped confessions from them admitting to the horrific crime.  A good part of the film shows these videotapes, the young boys nervously admitting to a crime that they knew nothing about.  By playing them against each other, the detectives were able to get them to say that it was one of the other boys that committed the rape (even though they didn’t all know each other).




The event which was known as “The Central Park Jogger” case became an instant media sensation, and electrified a city already plagued by out of control crime rates and simmering racial tension.  The young men were pilloried in the press and New York’s tabloid rags, which published and embellished every graphic detail.  The boys were described as being part of a “wolf pack”, out “wilding” on the night of the rape, ramping up fears amongst white society and bringing back old racial stereotyping and branding in hysterical editorial reportage.

Of course all of this is complete nonsense, as Burns patiently deconstructs through careful reporting and interviews.  The boys almost immediately recanted their confessions, claiming they were forced upon them by the police, while an even cursory review of the evidence showed that they were on the complete opposite side of the park when the rape occurred.  Even DNA evidence recovered at the scene was not matched to any of the suspects.  Nevertheless, when the case went to trial, the boys were convicted on all counts, with the videotaped confessions being the prosecution’s key evidence.  The five young men each spent the next six to thirteen years in prison, before serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime in 2002 (confirmed by DNA evidence), ultimately acquitting the men of the crime.

“The Central Park Five” is done in the style perfected by Errol Morris, and if you didn’t know any better, you would think it was his film, and not Ken Burns.  You never see or hear the interviewers, just the subjects, intercut with tons of archival news footage.  The interviews with the accused men are heartbreaking, as they explain how their childhood was taken away from them due to this miscarriage of justice.  True, these boys maybe weren’t angels, but certainly didn’t deserve to be victims of an overzealous police force desperate for a conviction.  In fact, the subject matter of the film is so inflammatory, and its position so strongly maintained that claims of advocacy for the wrongly accused men have been made by lawyers representing New York City in a civil suit.  They claim that the filmmaker’s rights as journalists are waived by the subjective nature of the film.  For ten years, their case has been winding its way through the court system, and Burns has been subpoenaed to hand over all outtakes and interviews from the film. However, I (and Burns’ film company that filed a motion to quash the subpoena) believe that the facts speak for themselves, and nothing I saw left any doubt as to who the guilty party was.

This is documentary filmmaking at its best, and shows the power and influence that this medium can have.  “The Central Park Five” will almost certainly be nominated for an Academy Award this year, and in my opinion, will win for Best Documentary.  I think it’s also time for the Academy to consider allowing documentaries to be included for consideration in the Best Picture category, as they did with animated films.  This is simply one of the best, and most important, films of the year.





RATING: ****





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