Ken Burns has been at the forefront of American documentaries for three decades, often focusing on in-depth, multiple part expeditions into the American psyche via Baseball, Jazz, The Civil War, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, Mark Twain, Louis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery and more. His new film, The Central Park Five, takes a similar approach by examining contemporary American media and police profiling, but with one singular case: the raped and beaten jogger in Central Park in 1989. Ed Koch, the mayor of New York City at the time, dubbed it the "Crime of the Century," and a media frenzy followed after the arrest of five teenaged black youths, only to find that in 2002, after most of their prison sentences were already served, they in fact were not the assailants, and their youth had already been taken from their hands, forcing them to come of age in prison.
Burns is banking on the idea that their innocence is a revelation that you weren't aware of, and most likely he will be correct in that assumption. The media was in a war with itself in building the story: there were competing scandalous headlines, new terminology for fear in the city that children were "wilding" in wolf packs; Donald Trump took out a full page ad demanding the death penalty, Pat Buchannan called for the oldest boy (16) to be hanged in the streets. Their acquittal and removal of the charge from their record got very little coverage. The police department and the city at large won't admit a mistake. The death rattle of the entire case was their innocence. Burns provides them with a bullhorn.
The twists in the procedural won't be revealed here, but Burns (here co-directing with his daughter Sarah) has a stunning amount of archival footage, including the taped "confessions" of the boys being led by police and prosecutors, another confession from someone outside of the five, courtroom sketches (at least one of the artists has apologized to the five, thinking the way he or she portrayed them might have aided the verdict, according to narrative in the film and an interview Yusef Salaam gave to SocialistWorker.org), politicians and news reporters, and interviews from all five defendants, now innocent victims of media and police railroading.
The film is stirring, heartbreaking and galvanizing but, thankfully, not polemic. If Burns has an agenda it is only to humanize the young men who were demonized in the press and lost their youth for a crime they didn't commit. Four of the former five appear on camera, the fifth (Antron McCrary) wishing to be visually anonymous and move on from this past, only provides new audio interviews, without video. It is his interviews that are perhaps most affecting, because the only footage to go with it is footage from during the case: age 14, going to court with his mother, walking through a sea of people clamoring for him to receive the death penalty. With his adult voice laid over footage of his younger self and the viewer not being able to see how he has aged, he and Burns are reminding us that the intense bloodlust, stirred and aided by the media, was directed at a boy, and six lives were horrifically, irreparably changed from one night.
"The Central Park Five" screens Saturday November 3 at 3:30 p.m. at The Egyptian Theatre and Monday November 5th at 1:15pm at the Chinese 6 Theatre, as part of the AFI Film Festival; register for tickets at AFI.com/afifest.
This post has been updated since its original publication.