Ken Burns’ reputation as one of the most adept documentarians working today is virtually unassailable, and what has enshrined him as such a legend isn’t so much that neat trick of panning and zooming over archival photographs which bears his name (and really isn’t all that impressive anymore). The real reason why Burns has become so successful as a filmmaker, and the why that PBS gravy train has no plans of leaving the station any time soon, is his consummate dedication to viewing the impact of larger events through the prism of intimate, personal experience. This preoccupation with lived experience is on full display in The Central Park Five, and while it’s in no way his best film, it’s a film that benefits immensely from his direction and concern for the uniquely personal.
Taking its inspiration from a book by Burns’ daughter, Sara, The Central Park recounts the story of the Central Park Jogger, a case which threw the safety of Manhattan and the efficacy of its police force under the harsh light of international scrutiny. In April of 1989, a young, upwardly mobile professional woman from Manhattan’s Upper East Side was brutally assaulted in Central Park. Raped and beaten within an inch of her life in a park which Manhattan residents had always considered something of a sacred space, the woman’s tragedy set in motion a frenzied effort on the part of King’s County law enforcement to solve the case as quickly as possible. Mayor Koch stated unequivocally that the investigation and subsequent trial would be a crucially important test of how well New York City was working.
Burns firmly establishes through some exquisitely shot photos just how dire the situation for many in NYC had become by the late 80s. The crushing poverty and epidemic levels of crack use which racked the less desirable neighborhoods of the city created an atmosphere of despair, and some among a generation of angry young people on the edge of destitution took to the streets at night to distract themselves from crippling depression. It was on such a night that five teenaged boys found themselves in Central Park. While they were there, about to be apprehended by the police for an evening of misdemeanors, Matias Reyes was brutally assaulting the Central Park Jogger. Through a series of terribly negligent and downright malicious police work, these five young men were essentially forced to confess to the crime. The police and D.A.’s office patted themselves on the back for a speedy meting out of justice, and the five young men were summarily sent to prison without a shred of DNA evidence to convict any of them and five separate confessions that, when viewed alongside each other, reveal some fairly critical discrepancies. The five men at the center of the story are thankfully not treated to a hagiography by Burns and his crew. They’re flawed people, just like everyone. The main difference being that they lost years of their lives and missed the chance to develop inside a society which was all too quick to blame young brown and black men for a heinous crime against a Caucasian investment banker.
The racial component of the story, while being front and center throughout (that’s pretty much unavoidable in this case) never supersedes the importance of the individual experiences of the five falsely imprisoned victims of the Central Park Jogger case. Burns, like always, finds more of interest in what these men have to say for themselves than in what political watchdogs and civil rights activists do, although he does find some very choice bits from each. Burns’ latest is one of his purest works, a perfect example of what it is he’s up to when you watch his longer projects, and I, for one, am glad he deigned fit to expend his considerable talents on such a recent historical event.