The infamous “Central Park jogger” case and the five young black and Latino men who became its scapegoats are the subject of Ken Burns’ incisive and powerful new documentary The Central Park Five, co-directed by Burns' daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon. Most viewers will know Ken Burns’ acclaimed small-screen work: his epic, multi-part documentaries on the American Civil War, baseball, jazz, and the U. S. national parks, all shot for PBS, have proven hugely popular both inside and outside of the classroom. Here, Burns and his collaborators turn their attentions to a somewhat smaller but no less important chapter of American history. The story unfolds largely from the points of view of the five teenage boys who, in the spring of 1989, were coerced by officials into taking the blame for the rape and battery of Trisha Meili, a young white woman attacked while jogging in Central Park. Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, all of whom were recently released from prison after the real perpetrator came forward and confessed, recount their ordeal with a devastating emotional honesty (the fifth of the men, Antron McCray, is heard but not shown on-camera).
By buttressing the details of the case with archival footage of a New York City nearly torn apart by racism, economic disparity, and a bloodthirsty legal system, the filmmakers effectively contextualize their subject and prevent it from coming off as mere tabloid fodder. Burns and his collaborators remind us that this was not just another scandal of the week—rather, it catalyzed the venting of a whole host of racial and class-based tensions that had been at a slow burn in the city since the beginning of the decade. Reporters and news anchors played on white fears of marauding black and Latino youths traveling in packs like wild animals (see above) while fetishizing the whiteness of the brutalized Meili. Commentators in the film draw apt parallels between the targeting of the five innocent youths and the lynching of Emmett Till. As presented by the filmmakers, the case says as much about the time and place out of which it arose as do the Salem witch trials or the McCarthy hearings.
Burns, McMahon and Burns handle this difficult subject matter with consummate tact and a brilliant command of tone. Watching it, you can tell that Ken Burns knows what he’s doing, and you see why he’s been able to make himself into a household name; the film is pointed without being aggressive, sober without being lugubrious, moving without being syrupy. In short, it’s impeccable—and riveting—documentary filmmaking. Highly recommended.