This new film from award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns tells the story of the five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. The film chronicles the Central Park Jogger case, for the first time from the perspective of these five teenagers whose lives were upended by this miscarriage of justice. This DVD features subtitles in English (SDH).
We know going in that the five young men featured in The Central Park Five were ultimately exonerated of the crime for which they were imprisoned–indeed, the documentary begins with the real perpetrator’s confession. But that’s cold comfort to them, along with anyone else outraged by the miscarriage of justice detailed in this powerful film by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and her husband, David McMahon. In April 1989, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker, was raped and savagely beaten while jogging in the park. The shocking crime came in a city already known, as one interviewee describes it, as “the capital of racial violence,” and media, politicians, cops, ordinary citizens, and everyone else demanded that whoever was responsible be brought to justice immediately, if not sooner. And although there were dozens of other black and Latino youths “wilding” (i.e., threatening and/or attacking others) in the park that night, only teenagers Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, all of whom were interviewed for this film, were ultimately arrested and convicted, based on confessions to the police who interrogated them. All five went to jail, serving between 6 and 13 years while the district attorney’s office congratulated itself on a job well done. But the confessions, portions of which we see in file footage, were bogus. If not actually coerced, they were certainly the products of five scared, confused, suggestible youths willing to say almost anything simply so they could go home. What’s more, the confessions were the DA’s only evidence; indeed, the DNA evidence didn’t implicate any of the boys, and they were exonerated when a serial rapist named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime in 2002. So what went wrong? Aside from the Five and their family members, reporters, lawyers (excluding the prosecutors), and former New York mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins point to a number of reasons: the “social moat” that divided the haves and have-nots, public pressure, sensational headlines in all the papers, cops more interested in making their “evidence” fit their theory of the crime instead of the other way around… and, inevitably, racism. In classic Burns style, the filmmakers combine interviews, film, photos, and some very effective music to create a document of shame that packs a genuine wallop. –Sam Graham