Film: The Central Park Five (2012)
Cast includes: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kharey (Korey) Wise, Ed Koch, David Dinkins
Writers/Directors: Ken Burns (Jazz), Sarah Burns (First feature film), David McMahon (The War)
Genre: Documentary (119 minutes)
“I saw her when she made the turn… she came by… I picked up a tree branch… struck her with it… dragged her… she kept moaning… in pain… bleeding… I’m the one that did it,” says Matias Reyes. On April 20, 1989, a female jogger was discovered near death in Central Park. She had been raped and beaten so badly that she would be in a coma for two weeks and have no memory of any of it. In the 1980s, crime was out of control in New York City. Drug wars. Gang wars. Graffiti everywhere. It was the capital of racial violence. When Bernhard Goetz, the subway vigilante, was on his shooting spree, locals cheered. While whites were afraid… blacks were actually more vulnerable. But this was a white woman raped in Central Park. It became the “crime of the century.”
On the night of the 19th, Raymond’s dad thinks hanging out in the street isn’t safe. He suggests the kids play in the park. But when Raymond gets to the park, he finds close to 30 teen-age boys “horse-playing.” Some of it was rough… throwing rocks at cars, chasing a couple on a tandem bicycle…. When the police came, everyone scattered. Three of the boys were picked up and brought in for questioning. Police held them overnight. The boys recognized the other from the neighborhood, but they didn’t know each other.
As the kids were about to be released, word came in about “the lady.” “What lady?” None of them knew anything about a lady. Two others were brought in, and the 5 were questioned separately. After 24 to 30 hours of non-stop interrogation of each teenager… often without parents or lawyers… each wrote a confession, saying whatever they were told to say. They just wanted to go home, and the police told them it would be their ticket out. There wasn’t a speck of physical evidence… no DNA matches, no blood or fibers, and no knowledge of the crime scene. But there was no turning back. The 5 were tried and convicted in the press, even before the verdicts were rendered. The sentences ranged from 6 to 13 years. But when Yusef, the only one who was tried as an adult, had almost finished his 13-year sentence, he learned that a fellow prisoner confessed to the crime.
We know from the start that the 5 aren’t guilty. What’s hard to understand is how it happened. This film attempts to lay it all out. While the convictions were huge news… “Teen Gang Rapes Jogger” “Demand the Death Penalty”… the exonerations got minimal news coverage. Years later, Sarah Burns, daughter of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, came across the story and thought it should be told. It became a family project with her father and husband. It doesn’t feel like a typical Ken Burns’ documentary, but the family expertise is evident in this compelling, well-told narrative. It was a lynch-mob mentality, and no one wanted to stop and ask the obvious questions. They got the guys, and that was that. Meanwhile, the actual rapist was awaiting trial for another rape. “I wish I had been more skeptical as a journalist. A lot of people didn’t do their jobs…. Truth, reality and justice were not part of it.” Says Jim Dwyer of the New York Times.
4 popped kernels
Five innocent teens were convicted of a violent rape in Central Park
Distribution: Mainstream limited release
Tempo: Cruises comfortably
Visual Style: Unvarnished realism
Character Development: Engaging
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Informative & Thought provoking