“Let the animals get themselves.” It isn’t pretty and it isn’t right, but it’s an adage that has been widely adopted by virtually all anomie-laden societies in Western culture. As a result, major cities are susceptible to bigoted battles of race and class much like the one that handcuffed New York two decades ago. From this vitriol Ken and Sarah Burns’ great documentary The Central Park Five derives its passion. Yet, amongst all the piss and vinegar anger that the creators clearly feel for their topic, there’s a humanity to this piece that elevates it well beyond the agenda-driven history lesson that it will undoubtedly be pigeonholed as.
It’s 1989 in New York City, at the tail-end of a decade filled with racial divisions, crimes, AIDS, and the vandalism that has become a thing of pop legend. On an average April morning, a jogger was found in Central Park, clinging to life after being raped, beaten, and left for dead. I know from personal experience (I was a three-year-old in NYC) that this single crime would ignite a city on edge and transform it forever. The Central Park Five tells the story of the five young men who took the fall for the crime in a poorly handled case, vilified by the media, and convicted by the public conscience. The stories of these young man transforms from deep tragedy to only mild triumph in a fight that still goes on until this day.
At one point in the film one of the boys’ sisters mentions that “from the inside [of prison], we didn’t know what was going on outside.” Precisely the same effect was occurring the opposite way. And therein lay the inherent flaw of a justice system based on people being guilty until proven innocent as judged by fellow impressionable citizens. What was happening on the inside was five boys who had no clue what they had been thrust into were systematically being turned into scapegoats, hung out to dry as an example of the kind of “filth” that ran through the streets. With these faces to put to the endemic problem, New York authorities could begin what would be a half-decade long crusade to clean the streets. On the outside, the city ate up everything the machine fed them by believing the rape was a result of “wilding” black boys with nothing better to do than destroy their neighborhoods.
Beyond the crime itself, at the core of The Central Park Five is a media machine that has for a longtime been the caricatured black eye on New York City. But the realistic power of the media truly dictates how the city thinks. The Central Park Jogger case came at time where emotions were spilling into the open and a rallying cry was precisely what the media needed to create a stir and sell papers. The Central Park Five illuminates how American minds are insidiously affected by media spin. Even the act of watching this film, as unbiased as it seems, feeds into how easily we can be subsumed by a well-spoken point of view. And there’s no accountability for the media churners who write whatever they want. And, in truth, there never will be.
Besides being a social document, The Central Park Five spins the story of a perfect crime. The victim loses her memory, a surprise prison tip reveals the true criminal, and a rightfully torn juror finally gives in to decide the fate of teenagers. Before even being a history lesson, the film works as an edge-of-your seat ride that takes the viewer not only on a journey with the subjects but on a shocking path of plot twists that even great writers would be loath to put on the page. Everything, from the political climate to the unaccountable media to the impressionable young boys, is placed perfectly to turn a random act of violence into everything a major city had come to fear at the time. It’s a piece of social commentary in an entertaining package.
Stylistically a departure for Ken Burns, The Central Park Five uses many of the classic methods of non-fiction storytelling to its advantage. From haunting stock footage to heartbreaking confessions caught on tape, the film digs into the past with a sense of straightforward journalistic accountability. Burns is everything that the vicious writers of New York newspapers are not. Yet, there’s also the classic ‘Burnsian’ touches; a stoic look back at history from the confused lens of the present. Here the repeated photographs of major players, pushed towards in that well-known slow digital zoom, take on a chalky composite of the actual humans they portray. As though these ghosts of the past represent each biased person who was so quick to convict these young boys.
The Central Park Five may well be the perfect example of exactly what non-fiction filmmaking can achieve: a perceptive look back at the mistakes of the past, a sharp comment on the fears of the present, and a textbook for how we may shape the future. All the while, The Central Park Five knows that it’s a piece of entertainment first, powerfully assembled to sculpt a suspenseful story reminiscent of the darkest, most penetrating Hollywood dramas. [A]