A piece of highly charged, quietly angry political filmmaking isn’t what the name “Ken Burns” summons, but that’s what The Central Park Five delivers. Burns, along with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, deliver a documentary that asks, almost out loud, “What the fuck?” and raises as many questions as it answers.
The case presented in The Central Park Five details two horrible crimes from a story that has slipped from national attention. First, in April 1989, Trisha Meili was jogging through New York City’s Central Park. As she crossed the 102nd Street transverse, she was beaten, raped and left for dead.
Second, police arrested several groups of young men who had been roaming the park that night. Some had assaulted cyclists and runners. Five of those young men who may have been in the park at the time of the rape—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Jr. and Korey Wise—confessed to it. They were tried, convicted and eventually went to prison.
Despite their confessions, the five accused—ages 14 to 16 at the time—maintained their innocence throughout the trials and their incarcerations, claiming police and prosecutors misled them. In 2002, their convictions were vacated based on new evidence that proved a different man, Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist serving a lengthy prison term for unrelated crimes, raped Meili.
Burns, often associated with long, studied and, depending on your point of view, wonderfully immersive or woefully dull documentaries such as Baseball, The Civil War and Jazz, takes a different tack here: straight reportage and righteous anger.
McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise appear in the film as adults (though McCray let only his voice be used). The fallout from their wrongful convictions is clear on their faces, whether they’re smiling, crying or relating the tale in disbelief.
At one point, Salaam says, “[The court] vacated the convictions but they didn’t vacate the prison terms. That happened. We went through that.” Wise seems particularly haunted by the experience, as if he can’t quite make sense of what he and the others lived through.
Police and prosecutors don’t appear on camera, probably because all five men sued New York City in a 2003 civil suit that remains unresolved. It’s just as well. The mountain of evidence supporting the innocence of these kids would make counter declarations seem inadequate and, as the filmmakers present it, racist.
Burns and crew maintain that police focused on McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise because they were black, brown and from the wrong neighborhood. One of the most infuriating things in the film is the use of the word “wilding,” which police claimed the kids used to describe their activities that night. (Aside: Were these cops ever kids? Who would use the word “wilding”?)
Working against the Central Park Five is their confessions. Attempts in the movie to explain why they confessed to crimes they didn’t commit still don’t make sense.
The most intriguing explanation in The Central Park Five for wrongful convictions—the Innocence Project lists 16 exonerations in 2012 alone—comes from historian Craig Steven Wilder, who says, “I want us to remember what happened [in April 1989] and be horrified by ourselves because it really is a mirror on our society. And rather than tying it up in a bow and thinking that there is something we can take away from it and we’ll be better people, I think what we really need to realize is we’re not very good people. And we’re often not.”
After all, the one juror in the Central Park Five case who says he was holding out for a not-guilty verdict eventually gave up because, as he says, “Frankly, I was wiped out.” He went home and slept in his own bed. Those kids went to prison for years.