Tales of social injustice always seem a perfect fit for a long-form documentary film, where complex stories given cursory or sensationalized coverage in the news media can finally receive their due. The Central Park Five takes its correction a step further by illuminating a tragic series of events that were set in motion — at least in part — by the lazy or indifferent reporting of professional journalists working in the news capital of the world.
On the night of April 19, 1989, a woman who would be known for years only as the "Central Park Jogger" was raped, beaten and left for dead. At approximately the same time, a group of about 30 teenage boys entered the park, and at least a few of them behaved violently, assaulting several people in random encounters. Their crimes were bad enough to attract the New York Police Department, which rounded up some of the boys and brought them in for questioning. When news of the crime against the jogger, who was white, arrived at the precinct, detectives decided the boys, who were black and Latino, and mostly 14 or 15 years old, were responsible despite a near-total lack of evidence. Although later proved innocent, the "Central Park Five" spent each between six and 13 years in prison thanks to a racially charged and media-fueled wave of anti-crime hysteria that swept New York City at the time.
As written and directed by documentarian Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, The Central Park Five doesn't dwell on the culpability of the New York news media that transmitted the deceptions of police and prosecutors desperate to solve the heinous crime quickly. It's more interested in the social factors that lead an entire city to embrace a dubious set of lies. It's no coincidence that the film's first original interview is with reporter Jim Dwyer, then of Newsday and now of The New York Times. "I ... wish I had been more skeptical as a journalist," Dwyer says. The interview has the tone of a personal apology.
The film's style of storytelling has nothing to do with the familiar sepia-toned photographs and narration of Ken Burns' popular PBS documentary series such as The Civil War and Baseball. But the filmmaker's ability to conjure distant time and place remains. In this case, New York City in the late 1980s is near financial collapse, riddled with racially motivated crime and reeling from the crack epidemic — a perfect storm of antipathy and inequality that set the stage for sending innocent kids to prison. Vintage filmed material sets the tone before giving way to new interviews with the five now-adults. Their complete lack of anger or bitterness is almost as shocking as the original crime or the false convictions.
The eventual resolution of the case brought real shame on one of America's most progressive cities, though relatively few were paying attention when the convictions were finally vacated in 2002. New York has changed immeasurably since 1989, and even more since 2002, and now boasts considerably safer streets and a carefully crafted, tourist-friendly vibe. Which only makes the lesson at the center of The Central Park Five that much harder to take — for New Yorkers and the rest of the country. To paraphrase an old song, if you can get railroaded here, you can get railroaded anywhere. — KEN KORMAN