Central Park Five a Mesmerizing Pursuit of Justice
It was a story that shocked a nation. In 1989, a young, athletic white female jogger was brutally attacked and raped in New York’s Central Park. Five black and Hispanic teenagers, aged between 14 and 16, were quickly arrested, interrogated and charged with the crime. Even though none of their stories matched up, even though the timeline was askew, even though there was not a shred of physical evidence linking them to the horrific incident, all of them were coerced and tricked into delivering confessions that seemingly proclaimed their collective guilt.
Archival photo of Antron McCray in The Central Park Five © IFC Films
All were convicted. All served between six and 13 years in prison. All had their lives more or less ruined. And, in the eyes of the media, the New York police force and the public at large, all of them were guilty, then mayor Ed Koch at the time calling this event the “crime of the century.”
Problem is, they didn’t do it. In 2001 serial rapist and convicted killer Matias Reyes admitted to the crime, his DNA linking him to the rape and his intimate knowledge of the facts making it an impossibility that he was not the one who committed this heinous act. In late 2002, after an exhaustive review of the case, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office had the convictions of the so-called ‘Central Park Five’ vacated, not so much admitting wrongdoing as letting innocent men finally get on with their lives without the shadow of these guilty verdicts eternally hanging over them.
The Central Park Five is a documentary pretty much guaranteed to raise one’s dander to its highest point. Directors Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns deliver an infuriating think-piece told from the perspective of those most affected by the New York police department’s rush to judgment, the five men who lost their youth and over a decade of their lives due to this miscarriage of justice.
From start to finish, you can’t take your eyes off of this film. Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana all make appearances, while fifth member of the group Antron McCray provides audio comments not wishing to appear on camera. The five are all extremely well spoken and go into the ins and outs of the case, specifically why they all allowed themselves to be coerced into confessions, and listening them it’s impossible not to understand just how horrific an experience this was for all of them.
The directors also use copious amounts of new footage from the trail as well as the announcements of their convictions being vacated, supplementing that with interviews with journalists who were covering these events at that time. Also making appearances, much to their respective credit, are former NYC mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins, both me not exactly stating the police department did wrong but at the same time regretting the injustices done to the five men wrongfully imprisoned for the crime.
Absent from the proceedings are any of the detectives or prosecutors involved with the case, all of them declining to comment or be interviewed for the film. As there are still civil suits against the city from the five men their absence is somewhat understandable as statements made for the filmmakers could have been admissible in front of a judge. At the same time, it would have been nice to get some of their side more into the proceedings, and while it’s extremely apparent the ball was dropped big-time in this particular case the film does have a bit of a one-sided bent that is particularly unavoidable.
Not that this makes The Central Park Five any less mesmerizing. The filmmakers have done a magnificent job bringing this case back into the limelight, arguing issues about race, politics and justice in America that are every bit as important and vital today as they ever were back in 1989.
Film Rating: êêê1/2 (out of 4)