The Central Park Five: written and directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon; starring Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise as themselves (2012): Harrowing documentary about how police and bureaucratic incompetence, if not malevolence, put five African-American and Latino teenagers in jail for a rape they didn’t commit in 1989, the rape being the headline-grabbing Central Park Jogger case.
This is unlike any documentary Ken Burns has worked on, as it eschews narration for a direct cinema approach of testimonies, period footage, and voiceovers from the people involved. It’s a sorrowful and mind-bending thing.
With DNA evidence, a timeline, and a suspect the police never bothered following up on all pointing away from the five teenagers, only confessions by the five — solicited and coached through fear, intimidation, their own youthful misunderstanding of what was going on, and exhaustion brought on by two days of grilling — would convince two separate juries to convict them.
This despite the fact that the confessions themselves didn’t make any sense in relation to the case, and that a fairly rigorous timeline put them far away from the scene of the crime. Physical evidence was either ignored or spun by the prosecution. Meanwhile, the press coined a term for the alleged gang rape — “wilding” — that ultimately referred to nothing that had happened. The teens were reviled as mutants, monsters and wolves in the mainstream press before the trial ever got underway. And the victim remembered nothing of the crime when she finally woke up from her coma.
The Five were eventually freed, in one of those twists that seems like something out of The Shawshank Redemption. Their civil suit against the City of New York drags on, as the City refuses to admit any culpability. Anyone who comprehensively says ‘The police are your friend’ should be forced to watch this. It’s chilling. Highly recommended.