In the wake of his magnificent PBS documentary The Dust Bowl, Ken Burns has a new film opening in theaters that couldn’t be more different yet also explores a dark chapter in recent American history. The Central Park Five is based on a book by the filmmaker’s daughter Sarah Burns, and was made in collaboration with her and David McMahon. It tells the story of a crime that shocked New York (and the nation) in 1989, when a female jogger was raped and brutalized one night in Central Park…and how the police department, and city prosecutors, railroaded five teenage boys who had nothing to do with the incident.
Four of the five boys—now grown men—are interviewed on-camera, while the fifth is heard but not seen. We also see the videotaped confessions that were coerced from them, in the middle of the night, after hours of browbeating: even then, we can see from their speech and demeanor that these are not hoodlums or lowlifes. But Burns, Burns, and McMahon don’t ask us to take their word: they also present damning evidence that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that someone else was the sole perpetrator of this notorious crime. These boys (and their families) were shamelessly manipulated.
What marks this as a Ken Burns project is not the subject so much as its treatment: as a historian, context is crucial to him, so if you weren’t living in New York at the time (as I was) he establishes the zeitgeist of a city at its lowest ebb, when crime was a constant presence in the news. Then, at the conclusion of this heart-rending saga, we find Burns’ other hallmark: asking pertinent questions. What we can learn from this, and are we capable of allowing it to happen again?
The Central Park Five is a thoroughly absorbing film that holds a mirror up to our society. You may not like what you see in the reflection, but you won’t be able to look away.