Ken Burns’ documentary The Central Park Five departs from his usual style, perhaps because it’s a collaboration with his daughter Sarah (who previously wrote a book about the subject of this film) and her husband David McMahon; or perhaps because it’s not a look back at America’s distantly painful past, but rather about a fresher wound. The movie begins with a montage of New York in the 1980s, establishing the context of a city dealing with the early days of the AIDS epidemic, the rise of crack cocaine, a decade of fiscal crises, and—above all—escalating racial tension, exacerbated by gang violence, police brutality, and vigilantism. Then, in 1989, a white, female investment banker was raped and beaten in Central Park, on a night when there were reports of mobs of black youths rampaging through the park. The police rounded up a group of Harlem teenagers, and after grueling interrogations, got confessions out of five of them. Almost as soon as they’d been charged, the teens withdrew their confessions, saying they’d been coerced; but with enraged citizens demanding justice, “The Central Park Five” were tried a little over a year after the crime and quickly imprisoned. They served out their terms, after which the emergence of a new suspect led New York to exonerate them, belatedly.
The Central Park Five tells this story largely via interviews with the Five themselves, supplemented with archival news footage and atmospheric shots of the locations where these events took place. Missing from the film—because they declined to participate—are the rape victim, her actual attacker, or anyone from the police or the prosecution. And though there’s explanatory on-screen text throughout, the movie has no narrator. So unlike the comprehensive, authoritative voice of most of Burns’ documentaries, The Central Park Five is more subjective, bordering on claustrophobic as it walks viewers step by step through how five kids became the most reviled people in New York City, even though the contradictions in their statements and the lack of DNA evidence should’ve provoked more skepticism.
That closed-off quality costs The Central Park Five some drama. This is a movie about a rush to judgment in a city on edge, and it never expands its scope or meaning over the course of its two-hour running time. But the specifics make the story powerful regardless. The accused explain what being interrogated was like, and how they eventually agreed to the police’s theory of the case because they were exhausted and because each one individually was told he’d get off easy if he just admitted he was there. Similarly, the one juror who was a holdout during the first trial says that he finally voted guilty because he was tired of the other jurors yelling at him. Meanwhile, the police and prosecution followed protocol, and the press and public took what the authorities said at face value, because the facts of the case mattered less than what it represented: a city fighting back against the thugs, whether they were guilty of anything or not.