*** (out of four)
Hindsight can be awfully depressing and frequently chilling.
You may already know the story of the five people in “The Central Park Five.” On April 19, 1989, a woman jogging in New York’s Central Park was beaten and sexually assaulted. Five young men were convicted. All of them eventually had their convictions thrown out after serial rapist Mathias Reyes confessed to the crime, but not before the wrongfully accused served from 6 to 13 years in prison.
How could this have happened? Directed and written by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns (who wrote a book of the same name) and David McMahon, this documentary hinges primarily on interviews with the titular five: Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., Kevin Richardson and Kharey Wise. They recall detectives coaching them into confessions to a crime about which the boys, who were in the park that night, knew nothing. The videotaped confessions, the key evidence in the case, don’t lie: There is no consistency in the accounts of what happened. Now, it looks like the kids said what they were told to in order to end a brutal interrogation, as the police officers promised.
“The Central Park Five” should have spent more time analyzing what New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer calls the “social moat” that separated people in late-’80s New York. After all, that’s the origin of the racially motivated fear that drove the convictions, which followed a systematic presumption of guilt from cops, journalists and lawyers. One particularly incriminating clip features New York City mayor Ed Koch lamenting, “We always have to say ‘alleged’” well before any conviction was in place.
The documentary also doesn’t get to the root of the failure of the press, expected to see through the racial bias of police, government and itself, or why none of the 25 other teens in the park that night came forward.
Like the West Memphis Three (seen in the “Paradise Lost” series and the upcoming documentary “West of Memphis”), the Central Park Five represent just one example of citizens undermined by the system they trusted to protect them—the feverish pursuit of safety trumped reason. Among all of the case’s horrors, one of the strongest is that a serial rapist ultimately cared more about the truth than the prosecution did.
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