Rating:With the release of the West Memphis Three (another documentary about that misuse of justice is coming later this month), writer/directors Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon shed light on another recent, heinous judicial flub with The Central Park Five. In 1989, five minority teens were accused and convicted of raping a young woman who was jogging in Central Park, setting off a media circus and pushing a city already reeling from racial tension to a boiling point. But while The Central Park Five tells an important story, it seems to exist to exact retribution against a flawed system rather than find redemption for the five men who had their adolescence wrested away from them for a crime they didn’t commit.
The directors do well to set up the context: New York in the ‘80s was a very different place than the tourist wonderland that it has become today. Violent crime riddled its streets. Times Square held a bevy of strip clubs. Only Olmstead’s shiny gem Central Park remained sacred. Coerced by the police into videotaped statements, the five young men were more than victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, argue the filmmakers. Instead, they were causalties of a city fraught with fear of minorities.
Some of the sting is taken out of The Central Park Five when we learn that all five men have already been exonerated for their crimes. More than a decade after the assault, another man confessed to the crime, exonerating Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Kharey Wise and Raymond Santana. So without the urgency to reverse a wrong, The Central Park Five has a more slippery purpose, even though the multitude of charts and graphs proving their innocence would make you think otherwise.
Intended as a takedown on the people who took down these young men, The Central Park Five feels vindictive rather than informative. It focuses on the politics at play before, during and after the trial. But this is a wasted opportunity (and a somewhat redundant move) by the filmmakers. The highly publicized case has already received the attention of the media ad naseum (Sarah Burns has even written a book about it). Why not use the film to humanize each of the five men? Buried beneath the talking heads and historical footage is a strong human interest story, yet the filmmakers chose to ignore it.
Because these are the moments The Central Park Five is most effective: when we see the emotional devastation the wrongful imprisonment had on each man and his family. It is already difficult to see how much each has changed. Photos and video of fresh faced youth changed into hardened, scarred men by an unforgiving system and society. Some of the men talk about life after prison and how they simply cannot adjust to normality. If The Central Park Five didn’t use most of its runtime on historians, reporters and people peripheral to the case, it could have gone from run-of-the-mill procedural to gut-punch of injustice. But the few scraps that shine through are enough for us to be fearful that something this terrible will likely happen again.