MRR Movie Review: "The Central Park Five"

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A documentary that takes a look into the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. After having spent between 6 and 13 years each in prison, a serial rapist confessed to the crime.
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Movie Review: "The Central Park Five"
Rating: Unrated
Length: 119 minutes
Release Date: May. 24, 2012
Directed by: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon
Genre: Documentary

"The Central Park Five" is a documentary about a case involving five black and Latino teenagers wrongly accused and convicted of raping a white woman in 1989 in New York. These kids spent between six and thirteen years in prison before a convicted serial rapist came forward and confessed to the crime.

The woman, who was twenty-eight years old at the time of the crime, was raped and beaten in Central Park, very early in the morning on April 20, 1989. She was discovered gagged, bound, nearly dead, and nearly naked. Her head had been crushed, and her shirt was soaked with blood. She was referred to in the popular media as the Central Park jogger for many years. In 2002, a judge of the New York State Supreme Court overturned the convictions of the teenagers (now men) when new evidence came to light. The evidence included a DNA sample from a serial rapist who had confessed to the rape.

The documentary was directed and written by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. The cast members all appear in the film as themselves.

"The Central Park Five" movie does not pretend to be objective. It relies on numerous facts and interviews to show how injustice was done to the convicts. Its meticulous production manages to elicit a lot of emotion using just these facts. This candid approach makes it very easy for those who watch it to feel righteous anger toward the police, the courts, the media, the public, and the whole justice (or injustice) system that condemned the innocent boys from the moment they were arrested.

That the five boys are all interviewed in the documentary, though one of them is not filmed, lends great credence to the story. It is interesting to note that though all of them exhibited reasonable grief about the injustice, none of them exhibited the hatred that would be expected from such people. This just goes to show that though their lives were damaged by their incarceration, they were not turned into bad people.

The fundamental racial assumptions and motivations of these kids are clearly portrayed in the documentary. For example, it shows that a similar crime had been committed in the park a few weeks before the rape of the Central Park jogger, but the crime was not given similar attention. What was the difference? The issue was that the previous victim had been black, and she had been assaulted by a black person too. The unspoken message seemed to be that blacks could make a mess with other blacks but not with whites.

Those who watch "The Central Park Five" should not assume it is just a documentary about a historical injustice that happened many years ago. It is not a movie made in the same vein as, say, the documentary "Salute" by Matt Norman. It should also be viewed as a cautionary tale for all parties involved in criminal proceedings, especially those that attract frenzied media attention. Everybody should be careful when dealing with these cases, otherwise the same fate that befell the five kids could easily be bestowed upon other people.

The filmmakers rightly captured the story within the context of the economic situation in New York at the time. The state (and the city) was just recovering from an economic slump, but it was still racially divided. The city had a terrible drug culture that impacted heavily in the increase in of violence, crime, poverty, and racial frictions. These are just some of the factors that led to the quick conviction of the suspects without full verification of the circumstances and evidence or the lack of it. The public, and by extension the political class, were just as eager to nail the culprits as were the cops.

The documentary uses a lot of the original video statements of the suspects/victims, and these provide a clear testimony of the confusion and coercion that made them confess to the crimes. Interestingly, the justice system was not interested when they recanted the same confessions later. Credit is due to the documentary's editorial team, led by Michael Levine, for assembling the detailed facts necessary for the production of the movie.

One interesting thing about this film is the fact that it has no room for suspense, which it does not use anywhere. Early on, it is clear that the boys are innocent. This is because the documentary opens by showing the confession of the serial rapist. "The Central Park Five" is an unforgettable documentary that will forever change the views of those who watch it.