Ken Burns's new documentary, The Central Park Five, tells the story of the the men falsely imprisoned for an explosive, much-publicized 1989 rape.
The night before the media screening of The Central Park Five, an extraordinary new documentary from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, I was telling my wife about it, based on the summary I was sent by the publicist. "Have you heard of the Central Park Five?" I asked. She hadn't. I barely had myself, mostly thanks to the email. "Well, back in 1989, this jogger in Central Park was raped and beaten—"
She interrupted, nodding. "Oh, the Central Park jogger. I remember that."
Our little playlet says a lot about the need for this particular documentary, about how vital and important the film is—because, while even those who didn't live in New York in 1989 heard the terrifying story of the 28-year-old white investment banker who was raped and nearly killed by a gang of young black and Latino thugs, there are still very few aware that a serial rapist confessed to that attack 13 years later. His DNA matched, and the five men's convictions were vacated. As historian Craig Steven Wilder notes, "Their innocence never got the attention that their guilt did." Now, McMahon and the Burnses are looking to remedy that.
Their film (out in New York City now and On Demand Dec. 7) opens with images of Central Park, accompanied by the chilling confession of the culprit, Matias Reyes, who does so in the clearest language imaginable: After a detailed description of his actions, he states, "I'm the one that did this." They're not just establishing the innocence of the film's protagonists here; they're using him to state a fact, from which they show, painstakingly and convincingly, how an altogether different conclusion was arrived at. The filmmakers assemble a remarkable montage that takes the strained racial temperature of the city at that moment: The crack epidemic and related spike in violent crime had a city on edge, and the deaths of Michael Griffith, Eleanor Bumpers, and Yusef Hawkins were sad evidence of racial tensions at a boiling point. The story of a group of black and Latino kids raping and almost killing a white woman tapped into all of that, and copious cultural/historical overtones besides. The New York press (particularly the tabloids) were filled with ghastly details, while similar crimes (like a Brooklyn case around the same time, in which a black woman was raped and thrown from a roof) were mostly ignored.
When the five young men are introduced, the filmmakers take pains to place their names on the screen, over and over. Part of this is a need for clarity. We have to keep these guys straight, particularly as they interweave images of the quintet then and now. But it also seems a conscious effort to keep it very clear that these are people, not a nebulous group and not an abstract. That's how they were seen then, in the press and by many New Yorkers: as monsters, out for the night on a "wilding." The vintage clips of TV man-on-the-street interviews are tough to watch. More shocking is then-Mayor Ed Koch, who sneers, "We always have to say 'alleged,' because that's the requirement."
The Central Park Five argues convincingly that, as with so many other stories of innocent persons wrongly accused, these five men—who may well have been the ones that did time solely because they were the ones that the cops managed to grab or find, out of a group of 30 or so causing trouble in the park that night—were deemed guilty very early on, and it was a narrative that could not be displaced. There was no physical evidence; only their own confessions, which were made after hours (14 to 30, according to the film) of intimidation and interrogations, all without lawyers present. (The fact that none of them were represented—and are in fact seen explicitly refusing counsel—is as inexplicable as it is infuriating.) The police turned the five of them against one another, making up accusations and evidence, and got five confessions, each of them describing what others did, while carefully noting that they didn't do anything themselves. But those weren't the only inconsistencies in the confessions. Timelines, locations, and weapons all varied wildly.
There's further reason to believe that they weren't involved (the film constructs an on-screen graphic that illustrates the impossible timeline), but thanks to the prosecution's savvy presentation of those confessions, as well as mostly incompetent defense, all were convicted. The melancholy section detailing their lives in prison and after is one of the picture's most moving and affecting, but it's quickly topped when the story gets to Reyes. As the audio of his confession is played, the camera goes from Kevin Richardson to Raymond Santana to Korey Wise to Yusef Salaam, holding sadly on their faces. The editing is simple, but the juxtaposition is powerful.
The Central Park Five is a riveting documentary. The filmmaking is simple and seamless, the facts copious but not overwhelming, the contributing on-screen voices--the accused (the four mentioned above, and Antron McCray, heard but not seen), their families, historian Wilder, Jim Dwyer of the New York Times, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, and others—eloquent and informative. Late in the film, Santana casually mentions that he is now 36 years old. I took a sharp breath. He's my age, I thought. It doesn't seem possible; I was so young when that case broke, and he seems impossibly older, hardened. In that moment, and throughout the film, the grief for youth and innocence lost is almost unbearable.