The latest Ken Burns documentary, The Central Park Five opens today, November 30 in Los Angeles for an exclusive engagement at the Landmark NuArt Theater. This very important must-see film examines the travesties that can happen when a city’s frenzied quest for a speedy conviction overpowers common sense, raising the question of whether the phrase “justice for all” is merely an antiquated and idealized motto touted by the powers-that-be to placate the naïve.
This time acclaimed filmmaker, Ken Burns turns the naked eye of his documentary camera upon a sensational event that happened in New York City almost twenty-five years ago. Back during a very tumultuous crime period for the Big Apple the body of a woman barely clinging to life was discovered in Central Park. Within days five teenagers (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam) confessed to her rape and beating after many hours of aggressive interrogations at the hands of seasoned homicide detectives – without the presence of their parents. The police then announced to a press hungry for a sensational crime story that the young men were part of a gang who had been assaulting joggers and bicyclists in Central Park.
New York Mayor Ed Koch called it the “crime of the century” and the ensuing media frenzy was met with a public outcry for justice. The young men were quickly tried as adults and convicted, despite inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, DNA evidence that excluded them, and no eyewitness accounts that connected any of them to the victim. Set against a backdrop of a decaying city, beset by violence and racial tension, The Central Park Five tells the story of how five lives were upended by a rush to judgment by police, a sensationalist media and a devastating miscarriage of justice.
Before I even walked into the theater my expectations for this film were very high. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, this is a Ken Burns production. Burns has produced some of the most critically acclaimed historical documentaries ever made including two landmark television series: The Civil War, and Baseball. Thanks to the veteran filmmaker audiences everywhere have come to respect and admire the art of documentary filmmaking, let alone discover a lot of American history they would otherwise have missed. Fortunately I was not disappointed; the Central Park Five is yet another fine example of Burns’ considerable talents.
By doing no more than reporting the simple facts this film is no less than a powerful condemnation upon the New York legal system in the last part of the 20th century. The documentary skillfully utilizes actual media coverage of the 1989 case combined with modern day interviews of the five black and Latino defendants who were railroaded into confessing to, and thereby convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. I don’t want to give away the means, but as the story unfolds it is revealed that after the young men each spent between 6 to 13 years in prison a serial rapist finally came forward and confessed to the crime. It was only then that the defendants’ pleas of innocence were even considered. Naturally they were released, but that doesn’t erase the horrible ordeal they were forced to endure. Why did this happen? How could this have happened?
Co-directed by daughter Sarah Burns and son-in-law David McMahon the film is handled in a fashion one would expect from the veteran documentary filmmaker and his offspring. The answers to these fundamental questions are presented in an unbiased and balanced manner as the facts that they are. That’s one of the truly amazing aspects of the film; it’s impressive sense of fairness. And yet it maintains an indelible mark of passion. Having met Burns (as well as his charming daughter and son-in-law) I can tell you that this family’s devotion to the subject is impressively genuine and every ounce of that emotion comes across on the screen.
After spending little more than an hour with them participating in a round table discussion I came away convinced that once Ken Burns and company are committed to a project no aspect of that topic will remain unexamined, nor unexposed. He just can’t help it. He gives his all and expects no less from others whether they’re relatives, documentary subjects or the people who’ve sworn to protect and serve the community. If Ken Burns is all in you’d better be too. Because if you’re anything less, regardless of what side of the camera you’re on you’ll be left either trying to catch up, or floundering for excuses.
No doubt you’ll be hearing a lot about this documentary between now and Oscar time. Blowing audiences away with its themes of racial profiling, wrongful accusations and the damaged court system The Central Park Five has left its mark upon every festival in which it’s played, including the recent 2012 AFI Film Festival where it garnered standing ovations after each screening. Surely its nomination for Best Documentary by the International Documentary Association is only the beginning. I have no doubt that the film will be a solid contender for the coveted golden statuette, come late February.
After its initial release the film will open in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Chicago and other cities throughout the year. So, keep an eye out for it where ever you live. This is one movie-going experience that will heighten your appreciate for the liberties you take for granted.