Trisha Meili was jogging through Central Park when she was assaulted and raped on the night of April 19th, 1989. It was a brutal crime which managed to shock a city all too familiar with violence, and the police acted with great haste in trying to identify and arrest the perpetrators. At the time, there was a pattern of gangs of teenagers intimidating and assaulting people in the Park - an activity known as 'Wilding', the origins of which, whether it was a term used by the teenagers or created by the police, is disputed - and the investigators rounded up the members of a group who were known to have been in the park on that night. Ultimately, five young men were arrested, indicted and convicted of the assault, all of which was carried out under the unforgiving glare of the media, who portrayed them as vicious, almost sub-human monsters. Their sentencing was met with jubilation, and was hailed as a victory against the culture of crime and violence that was rampant in New York.
That would all make for a triumphant story if the boys were, in fact, guilty, but that was not the case. They were in Central Park on the night in question, but as the documentary The Central Park Five argues in painstaking, heartbreaking detail, they were not the perpetrators of the crime for which they were convicted. Using interviews with the five boys - now all in their thirties - as well as their family members, legal council, and even luminaries like former New York City mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins, co-directors Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns tell a story of five young men who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who were railroaded because they were young black and Hispanic men who happened to be nearby when a white woman was attacked.
Anyone familiar with the work of Ken Burns will know that he is something of a legendary figure in the work of documentary film-making thanks to his epic, multi-part series on subjects like The American Civil War, Jazz and Baseball. His style is marked by great use of primary sources, voice over and music, but, owing to the historical nature of his work, rarely first-hand accounts of the people involved. As such, The Central Park Five has a distinctly different flavour to most of his other documentaries, since rather than relying on actors to read out diary entries or news reports, he can just ask the key players themselves. (Though there are some notable exceptions to this; neither Meili nor any of the police who investigated the crime agreed to appear in the film.) His team also have access to ample news footage from the time, something which is much easier to find for 1989 than it is 1865. There are still some typical Burns touches like atmospheric, almost creepy shots of the locations around Central Park where key events on that night occurred, but it lacks the scope and meticulousness of a lot of his work.
Some of the most eye-opening pieces of evidence contained in the film are the boys' taped confessions recorded by the police. The recordings were made after they had undergone interrogations lasting up to 24 hours, been presented with misleading or false evidence by the detectives, and told that confessing would be the best option for them. It's easy to see that they're scared, tired and that they are frantically grasping at what they think is there one way out of the situation, which makes it all the more tragic that these tapes would play a crucial part in making things far, far worse for them. What's even worse is that only four of the boys gave these confessions, but the fifth was accused as well because they implicated him in their statements. (There was a great deal of controversy at the time over whether these confessions were coerced, and I think it's fair to say that The Central Park Five leans heavily in favour of that possibility.)
Despite no DNA evidence linking them to the crime and wild inconsistencies between the statements given and the facts of the crime scene, these confessions were used as the primary evidence against them in court, and ultimately played a major role in their convictions. One of the real strengths of the film is how it demonstrates the reverberations of this one miscarriage of justice. It shows that it didn't just profoundly and irrevocably alter the lives of the five young men who lost their youth and had their options in life severely limited, but snaked its tendrils into the lives of their families, who had to endure the pain of separation and the anguish of pleading their innocence for over a decade. Most shockingly, it allowed the actual rapist, who confessed to the crime in 2001 while serving a sentence for committing a series of rapes and murders, to continue committing crimes for years whilst five innocent men sat in prison cells.
Burns, McMahon and Burns focus primarily on the personal aspects of the story, relating each horrible, incensing detail of the experience with journalistic remove, but they also find time to offer a wider critique of the society that allowed such an injustice to happen. They go to great lengths to contextualise the crime and the case among the racial tension of the era, the appearance of crack cocaine on the market and the rise in crime that followed, and the way in which the crime and the crackdown on that crime hit the black community, particularly young black men, very hard. Or, to take a leaf from David Simon, to explain how the case of the Central Park Five fit into the wider mosaic of the war on the American poor and disenfranchised.
In doing so, they also take into account the actions of a sensationalistic media landscape which pegged the Five as criminals long before they were convicted, and which refused to acknowledge how complicit it was after their convictions were overturned in 2002. Some of the language used to describe the boys - and, by extension, all young black men - could be described as borderline racist, were there any "borderline" about it. The lack of accountability or remorse from any of the people involved in getting the conviction, particularly by anyone involved in the justice system, many of whom made names for themselves as a result of the case, is sad and telling.
For everything that is great about The Central Park Five, it is held back from true, unquestioned greatness by its style. The craft on display is certainly good and does a wonderful job of putting across the facts of the case, but it also feels very limited and televisual. It consists primarily of talking heads, archive footage and quiet, menacing music, all of which are effective and stops short from sensationalising the story (though, really, how could you make it more sensational and infuriating than it already is?) but it still feels a tad doc-by-numbers.
It doesn't help that it exists in the shadow of Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, which also examines a wrongful conviction but carries it across in a much more artful way, not to mention the rest of Ken Burns' intimidating body of work. Few films could stand up to such a comparison, though, and it's a mark in The Central Park Five's favour that it doesn't completely buckle under such expectations. It's a compelling, measured, and intelligent take on a story that should leave any decent person's blood boiling with rage, and it is the power of its story that ultimately triumphs over its slightly pedestrian storytelling.