LITTLE ROCK The horrors of a runaway justice system portrayed in The Central Park Five could be the basis of a big-budget, high-grossing Hollywood crime drama. But Hollywood lost out - this taut, expertly crafted film, based on what happened to five Harlem teenagers accused of raping a woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989, is a documentary. Its faces, emotions and circumstances are real.
Directed and written by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, The Central Park Five uses explicit archival video, blaring newspaper coverage, poignant family photos and soul-baring recent interviews to piece together what happened on the night of April 19, 1989, when a 28-year old investment banker with a master of business administration degree from Yale was attacked, beaten and sexually assaulted around 9:20 p.m. in Manhattan’s premiere green space.
Five black and Hispanic teenagers (ages 14-16) were arrested that night. After an intimidating police interrogation, massive media attention, public outcry about violence in the city and two very public trials, they were convicted in 1990.
Despite a lack of evidence, the teenagers - Antron McCray (who declined to appear in the film, but whose voice is heard), Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise - had signed confessions, written by detectives, after 15-30 hours of interrogation that included pitting them against each other.
The problem is, although they were roaming around in the park that night - these were the outlaw days of “wilding,” with gangs of rampaging teenagers assaulting strangers - they didn’t do it. A serial rapist confessed to the crime, resulting in the five’s convictions being overturned, but not until after they had spent six to 13 years in prison.
The filmmakers - 12-time Emmy Award-winning Burns, his daughter (who wrote The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes) and her husband - are at their best when showing the now-adult five recalling that awful night. The brilliantly edited scene allows each man to advance the story, then cuts to another man, whose recollections continue to move the story forward. Some of them talk for several minutes; others add a short, succinct remark.
The technique is stunningly effective at building tension, moment by moment, until the dreadful tale is told in full. Liberal use of each man’s name superimposed on the screen helps viewers keep track of who’s who.
Although each man contributes his unique memories to the segment from the perspective of an adult (with a heavy air of “If I knew then what I know now”), they often revert to being terrified kids who would have done anything to bring an end to an abusive interrogation that showed zero regard for their rights. “All I thought about was going home,” said Santana. And confessing, the detectives told them, was the only way that was going to happen.
The documentary, which maintains a sense of decorum through the chaos of the drama, makes it clear that giving in to the demands of others - by the teenagers, by journalists who didn’t dig very deep when covering the story to placate citizens demanding that someone be held accountable for the crime, by New York Mayor Ed Koch who further sensationalized the uproar by calling the assault “the crime of the century,” by a juror who thought the five might be innocent but got worn down by trying to convince the others on the jury - cleared the path for the criminal justice system to take control and dictate the outcome of the case, regardless of the facts (including suppressed DNA evidence).
By focusing on the five men and the heart-wringing contributions of their damaged families - there is no narrator, no voice over, no additional interpretation - the filmmakers bring an internationally notorious miscarriage of justice down to an intensely personal level. Despite their eventual release and exoneration, there’s no escaping the pain of the ordeal that plays out here, and the grim realization of the outrageous injustice that caused it.
The Central Park Five 90 Cast: Documentary with Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kharey Wise and the voice of Antron McCray Directors: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon Rating: not rated Running time: 119 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 12/21/2012
Print Headline: The Central Park Five