Genre: Documentary/Crime Drama
Year Released: 2012
Running Time: 119 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 17+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: After Innocence, Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, 13th, Hate Crimes in the Heartland, I Am Not Your Negro
-There will be a reference to something political which makes this documentary harsher in hindsight. You have been warned.
-The ending theme “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” by Doug Wamble is actually a Nina Simone cover.
-At the end of the film, the falsely accused men of the Central Park Jogger case sent a lawsuit against New York City and it was unresolved at the time this was completed. In 2014, the city finally settled $41 million to the five of them. They are also fighting to get an additional $52 million and if you know what they’ve been through, who can blame them?
-The Central Park Five won a Peabody Award in 2013.
-This documentary almost got censored because NYC lawyers tried a subpoena against Ken Burns because they thought The Central Park Five “crossed the line from journalism to advocacy”, but fortunately it was halted in 2013. Because of this fact, The Central Park Five is the fourth film I’ve reviewed that was threatened to be censored and/or blocked after reviewing This Is Not A Film, Bananas!*, and Jungle Emperor Leo.
As you may have figured out after reading several of my reviews, I enjoy some documentaries. Since I review this form of cinema, it would only be a matter of time until I would critique something from legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. He’s worked on several famous features through PBS and other places. It is a shame that people only know his name because of his trademark transition effect known as the Ken Burns Effect as also seen in basic editing programs like Windows Movie Maker or iMovie, but I know who he is.
Let’s dive right in and check out this chilling documentary.
The Central Park Five is a film that deals with the infamous 1989 Central Park Jogger case. For those of you that don’t know what it was, it was a huge case in New York City. On April 19th, 1989, a white woman named Trisha Meili was jogging late at night before she was beaten and raped by someone. Five teenaged boys aged fourteen to sixteen who were also minorities (four African-Americans and one Puerto Rican) who were in Central Park earlier that night were accused of committing this heinous crime against the victim. The NYPD tirelessly interrogate all the kids. They don’t believe any of their testimonies as they hold them at these precinct stations for hours on end, so they engineer some confessions with the promise of make sure the kids get to go home. Later on, all five of these wrongly accused teens get convicted on gang rape, assault, and sodomy charges. This starts a media firestorm with people freaking out and demonizing these innocent prisoners. They wouldn’t even get released until 2001 and the only reason why is because the real rapist Matias Reyes confesses. All five men tell their stories about this miscarriage of justice.
I’m no stranger to reviewing films especially documentaries with uncomfortable subjects, and The Central Park Five is no exception, but it needed to be told. The stories from Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise were quite chilling. It was disgusting what happened to them and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. A couple of the men even cry at some points when they talk about their experience, and I wouldn’t fault them for all the injustice they went through. This railroading of these teens might as well be child abuse as they forced the kids to tell the truth, yet they wouldn’t believe them because it didn’t fit their narrative of this rape case. The tactics and language from the news media wasn’t much different from Jim Crow-era America as people were getting their rocks off to see them get jailed for a crime they didn’t commit. What made this even more infuriating is that the cops had DNA samples that matched NONE of the five boys, yet they still tried them anyway, convicted them, and treated themselves to a fancy dinner at Elaine’s. None of the NYPD personnel at that time ever spoke up in this film. Antron’s words of his experience involved saying that the cops told him to “Tell them what they want to hear” before they started making up these fake confessions. How disgusting.
The production is of high-quality as expected from Ken Burns. Like most of his other documentaries, he incorporates the archived footage, the video confessions, and modern scenes. He does use some talking head effects a lot with four of the accused five (Antron’s face wasn’t shown, only his voice was there), some lawyers, journalists, and the accused peoples’ family members. There’s some creative B-roll footage of New York City, the prison fences, and the recurring footage of the clock. There was a metaphor of the time spent during the interrogations and the time served in jail. One chilling B-roll scene has an extreme close-up of a second hand and a minute hand as the pressure starts getting to the teenagers back then. The music also uses old-school hip-hop from the 80s and 90s which would have been quite timely given the history of this event. Ken Burns certainly doesn’t fail with the visuals and audio production of The Central Park Five.
I also thought there were some elements of unintentional brilliance with the situation at hand. The first thing I want to bring up was that some of the lawyers and historians bring up the obvious double standard of the case by bringing up other rape cases that happened close to the same time that barely got mainstream press whenever the perpetrator was “the same pigment” as Trisha Meili. That needed to be said and it only highlights the way people of certain ethnic groups get treated better than others in the American justice system. Raymond’s arc of getting back from prison only to be unemployed and selling drugs to make ends meet brings up another point that subtly criticizes the prison-industrial complex. In America, jails really teach prisoners (guilty or innocent) to be better criminals. They get released, can’t get work because of their convict status, can’t get money, so they resort to criminal means to survive which only leads them into prison again into a cycle of criminality. Another damning effect that was a huge blight on the people involved in the Central Park Jogger case was the real culprit Matias Reyes himself. He didn’t confess until thirteen years after the fact, and he was able to rape and murder other people all that time when The Central Park Five themselves were in jail. How bad do you have to suck at administering justice when a serial rapist and murderer is able to take responsibility for what he did unlike the NYPD in this case as they still haven’t apologized or owned up to their vices of locking up innocent people. Also, The Central Park Five spent years in jail when you have real rapists decades later like Brock Turner only serving three months for violating an unconscious women or Robert H. Richards IV getting only probation for raping his own children. Think about the stark treatment of those people. Some of those points hit me hard long after watching and I had to bring them up.
Speaking of others not taking responsibility, wouldn’t it be insane if some people who ran full page ads to send a witch hunt for The Central Park Five, call for New York to bring back the death penalty to kill these children, and eventually become president decades later?
Oh wait. That actually happened.
I know I’ll get heat for this, but I’m not going to deny this fact. The man also known as #45 actually ran newspaper ads in New York to demonize these teens and wanted them to be killed for the crimes they didn’t do. What makes this situation even worse is that during the last election, he still upheld his decision and didn’t believe they were innocent despite them being EXONERATED BY DNA AND MATIAS REYES CONFESSING TO HIS CRIMES! That’s pure insanity since they were already proven not to have done it despite their railroaded confessions. Also, someone like him really shouldn’t talk about sex crimes given the allegations of violating women including his first wife, sneaking into a Miss Teen USA dressing room, or an infamous conversation in an Access Hollywood bus that might as well share a name with a certain vehicle in the Kill Bill series. Just saying. Let’s not have double standards, people.
While The Central Park Five was a powerful documentary, I can’t say that everything was star-spangled awesome. I’m glad Ken Burns did a great job and showing the proof on why the five men didn’t commit the crime, but the environment where they came from isn’t going to alleviate any stereotypes. The interviewees do bring up some of the social ills that affected minority communities such as crack cocaine, gang warfare, and murders which can only add to some viewer’s prejudices of “black on black” or “minority crime rates” as more ammo to deflect from racial talks. I’m not going to deny what happened, but it could hurt the presentation. The lack of police talking in the documentary with the exception of the archived tapes from 1989 and 1990 did come off as unintentionally one-sided. I’m not stupid as to why the NYPD wouldn’t want to be on a documentary like this lest they be exposed for carrying out a miscarriage of justice against minors of color, but I would’ve like to have seen more sides to really show more of the contrast between the different opinions versus the facts at hand. I also wished they would’ve brought up the classist undertones more. You see, Trisha Meili was a Wall Street employee and I’m surprised no one brought up the fact that she had money. The racial aspects needed to be addressed, but I would have liked to have seen more intersectionality presented. It also begs the question that if Trisha were a middle-class or a lower-class woman, would there be as much media coverage as it did with her working a lofty job on Wall Street? It’s one of the reasons why docs like Hate Crimes In the Heartland worked on so many levels because they brought up both the racial and the economic ramifications when the interviewees addressed the atrocities committed in Tulsa during the Black Wall Street Massacre. Come to think about it, both docs have a common theme of racist attacks and the concept of a false rape accusation gets brought up.
The Central Park Five is a stunning documentary and it sheds light on how flawed the justice system can be. The testimonies from the five exonerated men were extremely haunting as they detailed their experiences being framed and imprisoned. I really hope those men get full restitution with what they’ve been though. The presentation of the film is under the masterful hands of Ken Burns as he mixes modern and archived footage for the full effect. I did find some fridge brilliance with so certain things are brought up or how some events after the documentary was made only made the points stronger in hindsight. I do wish they would talk about other things like the economic aspect in addition to the rampant racism of the public and the investigators involved though. It’s certainly a documentary that will get you angry, but there’s a sense of hope after they are finally free. Definitely recommended.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you like stories of innocent people getting free from wrongful imprisonment
Subtract 2-3 points if racial issues make you feel awkward
-Wonderful visual production
-Immensely powerful stories and commentary from The Central Park Five victims
-The thesis of this doc is stronger in hindsight with other events such as how real rapists are treated better than the five men (see: Brock Turner, Robert H. Richards IV, or other wealthy rapists)
-Lack of intersectionality in the narrative
-Prejudicial images of a crime-ridden 80s Harlem
-NYPD’s silence on this issue
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: Definitely older teens and up. The whole doc is about a brutal rape case. There are pictures of a bloodied Trisha Meili despite her face being censored in the entire doc and one courtroom painting shows a depiction of the evidence showing her nude. Raymond does drop quite a few F-bombs in his interview. One thing that needs to be brought up are the ads calling for the death penalty. The Central Park Five were all minors with the oldest being sixteen years old, so you have the public howling for blood to let kids die, but they would never bring this up if the suspects were of the same pigment as Trisha though. Fact.
Photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.