A documentary that examines the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. After having spent between 6 and 13 years each in prison, a serial rapist confessed to the crime.
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In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were arrested and later convicted of raping a white woman in New York City's Central Park. They spent between 6 and 13 years in prison before a serial rapist confessed that he alone had committed the crime, leading to their convictions being overturned. Set against a backdrop of a decaying city beset by violence and racial tension, THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE tells the story of that horrific crime, the rush to judgment by the police, a media clamoring for sensational stories and an outraged public, and the five lives upended by this miscarriage of justice. Written by
Social injustice and the failure of the justice system has long been a favourite topic for documentary film-makers. It's been done to death, sometimes raising enough attention for the case that it leads directly or indirectly to releasing the incarcerated (The Thin Blue Line (1988), the Paradise Lost trilogy (1996-2011)), or exposes enough holes in the story to make you doubt the effectiveness of police interrogation and/or the legal system as a whole (Brother's Keeper (1992), Capturing the Friedmans (2003)). It's estimated that 10,000 innocent people go to jail every year, so naturally, this kind of thing keeps rearing it's ugly head, and it makes for riveting and gob-smacking viewing.
The 'Central Park Five' are Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, youths aged between 13-15 in 1989, who found themselves in the wrong place, in the wrong city, at the wrong time. Trisha Meili, a young jogger running through Central Park, New York, was viciously beaten, raped, and left for dead by Matias Reyes, a notorious rapist who confessed to the crime years later. The five boys were in a group of 30 or so others, some causing havoc and attacking people, when the police descended on them. Through long and intense interrogations, the five made false confessions to witnessing the crime, incriminating one another with the promise of being allowed to go home.
The first hour of The Central Park Five is its finest. Ken Burns, directing here with his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon, is a historian at heart, digging out terrific archive footage of a city consumed by crime and racial tension, in the midst of the AIDS outbreak and the savage crack wars. The young boys, all black or Latino, were nothing but scapegoats for the NYPD, who were looking for a quick and tidy conviction. The brutal witch-hunt they suffered following their arrest, and the lazy role of the press - labelling the boys actions before the assault as 'wildings' and failing to do any real investigating of their own - is representative of the social and racial divide. This was a time when the city averaged six homicides a day.
There is also a wealth of footage showing the boys' 'confessions', which are fascinating to see unravel. There is a special moment when Korey Wise is shown a picture of the victim's bruised and battered head, and the sound that leaves his mouth leaves you in doubt of his incapability of committing such an act. The second half of the film left me frustrated. There are no big, satisfying moments of anyone getting their just deserts, and the Five, now released from prison and cleared of guilt, shows a startling lack of bitterness to the ordeal they experienced. There's certainly a lack of anger to the film, both by those involved and the directors, and it leaves things a little cold. But perhaps that's the point, that reality really is that harsh, and closure is hard to come by.
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