The Central Park Five

A documentary

  • Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon

In 1989, a white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. New York’s finest arrested five black and Puerto Rican teenage boys, all of whom confessed under police interrogation. Their confessions contradicted each other, and they all contradicted the physical facts. What’s more, none of their DNA could be found near the crime scene. Yet they were all convicted, and spent many years in prison before the real culprit, also incarcerated for other crimes, confessed.

Ken Burns made The Central Park Five (with two collaborators), but it is unlike any other Burns documentary. The events it chronicles are recent–and not entirely over. Burns’ usual, slightly nostalgic style would have been totally inappropriate for a story UNITED STATES - AUGUST 18:  Accused rapist Yusef Salaam is escorted by police.  (Photo by Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)that feels ripped from the headlines, so he went for a tougher, grittier style. No movie stars supply the voices of long-dead historical figures. There’s no voice-of-God narration. The camera never glides over still photographs, although Burns does use that signature technique sparingly with court illustrations. And, of course, this is a theatrical feature, not a multi-part PBS miniseries.

But in one way, this is very much a Ken Burns documentary: It focuses on American racial issues. Burns has always been fascinated with our country’s original sin, slavery, and it’s still searing after-effects.

Burns and his collaborators start with a grim view of New York City in the 1980s. The crack epidemic had turned the city into a teeming cauldron of violent crime. The white, often affluent population was terrified, even though the vast major of victims, like most of the perpetrators, were black or brown. The city seemed ungovernable.

In that atmosphere, this particular rape produced shockwaves, and offered a high-profile way for the police to prove their worth. According to The Central Park Five, the police pressured and intimidated the scared, young boys into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. Once they had the videotaped confessions, the prosecutor made sure the boys were convicted first in the press, and second in court. Needless to say, their parents couldn’t afford the type of lawyers who could have gotten them off.

Not surprisingly, the police and the prosecutor (who made her reputation on this case) deny these charges.  The only legal investigation into police misconduct here found them innocent of all wrong-doing, but that investigation was conducted by the New York City Police Department. Neither the cops nor the prosecutor agreed to be interviewed for this film.

The five themselves, all extensively interviewed, come off as intelligent, decent men who have suffered from the theft of their youth. Their personal stories (which are hardly tales of angels), and the stories of people close to them, give The Central Park Five heart. The rush to judgment that ruined their lives gives the film a sense of purpose.

Most Ken Burns documentaries help us understand how we, as Americans, got to where we are. This one shows us exactly where that is.