In the beginning, it was seemingly a cut-and-dry case of absolute depravity, known as "The Central Park Jogger": Lone white Wall Street woman jogging at night in the park. Black and Latino youths "wilding," creating mayhem, violence and committing gang rape. In 1980s, racially divided New York City, the crime was explosive and consumed newspaper headlines. As per the public, media, police, D.A., Mayor Koch and jury, the "wolf pack" was guilty. None let the truth get in the way.
Years down the road, after the case unraveled, Sarah Burns, an American Studies Major at Yale, wrote her senior essay on this miscarriage of justice. After graduation, she compiled her findings and views on race relations in the book The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding. Using her published work as a blueprint -- with the help of documentarian David McMahon (The War) and her noted father, PBS filmmaker Ken Burns (The War and The Civil War) -- Sarah sought to examine the truth. This enlightening, investigative documentary exposes a tragedy of historic proportions using firsthand interviews with the suspects, journalists, a juror, and experts in the fields of race relations and social psychology. Their words and recollections indict a criminal justice system and those who rush to judgment.
It's April 19, 1989. Thirty restless Black and Latino youths head into Central Park at night on a lark. Some turn the excursion into a rampage, led by a few real troublemakers, who harass people, even beating a male jogger. Victims call the police who arrest who they can. That same night a female jogger is beaten and raped in the park. In a city on edge and reeling from a crack-epidemic crime wave, the cops are pressured to find suspects. They focus on several teens, easy prey they cornered for the "wilding" incident: Yusef Salaam is a close friend with Korey Wise, a hearing impaired, mentally challenged youth. Yusef lives in the same apartment complex as Kevin Richardson, who is also detained. Antron McCray attends school in the same building as Raymond Santana.
The kids are 14-15 years old, except Wise who is 16 but with the mental capacity of a much younger person. The police, through intimidation, suggestion, taunting and lies ("the others are pointing to you") coerce the kids into confessions, becoming witnesses and implicating themselves. Miranda rights be damned. Parental consent, non-existent. And when parents finally do get involved, they, like their offspring, are almost willing to say anything to end the matter. They just want to take their children home. To their detriment, concentrating on the immediate future and not the big picture sets in motion a series of events that become irrevocable.
The filmmakers display archival footage (some shot by the police) and Q & As with the now thirty-something, more mature and circumspect five. You find out how the lambs were led to slaughter. Sensational headlines. A determined D.A. A tough judge. Inadequate defense. A derisive Mayor Koch, "We call them 'suspects' but we all know the deal." Momentum was against the kids. Contradictory confessions, a lack of DNA evidence and the truth do not provide a sustainable firewall.
Watching these poor, uneducated teens and their overwhelmed parents/guardians get bullied is a horror. Emotionally you're incredulous, scared and then angry. People in positions of authority abandon logic, project racial strife and the anger of millions onto defenseless kids. Maybe the boys weren't saints, but they weren't felons or rapists. You wonder could this happen to your kids? Or if you were a teenager, could you withstand the barrage?
The graphic footage is shocking, astonishing, disheartening but does not express an opinion. With distinct objectivity, you draw your own conclusions after investigating the facts, witnessing testimony and getting the point of view of both the teens and their entrappers. Credit editor Michael Levine (the 119-minute length feels like a half-hour), cinematographers Buddy Squires and Anthony Savini, and composer Doug Wamble for making the experience succinct, graphic and totally absorbing.
After screening this film you'll feel like you just took a graduate course in civics, sociology, race relations, criminology, politics, urban studies, African American and Latino history. Under close examination, this tragedy is on par with other classic cases of injustice: Sacco and Vanzetti, Emitt Till, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Scottsboro Boys. And though the film is academic in its attention to detail, it is thoroughly compelling and ambitious, like an historical drama worthy of a theatrical release.
The boys served out their full sentences for the beating and rape of the Central Park Jogger. Their lives were destroyed, youth taken, innocence lost. What this film does for those kids, now men, is reveal the real rapist, tell the truth and give them a pathway to vindication. Those noble elements make The Central Park Five, a searing, purposeful documentary -- a 21st century cautionary tale.
Visit Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.