BFI London Film Festival Review – The Central Park Five

On April 19th, 1989 a woman jogging through New York’s Central Park was brutally raped and left for dead. Several young African-American men, who were in the park at the time, were arrested for attacking her. Over the next 23 years, they consistently protested their innocence.

The attack this documentary is based on took place on my ninth birthday, so I have no recollection of even hearing about it, but isn’t that what documentaries are for, expanding our knowledge of the world around us?

This film is a chance for Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana to tell their version of events, and what a version it is. The five teenagers were part of a group who entered Central Park, caused havoc and scattered when confronted by the police. Over the next few hours, they were rounded up and taken in for questioning, after a woman was found badly beaten in the park. Each of the men say that the confessions they seemingly so readily gave to police were coerced, and every single word was a lie.

Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana were underage at the time of the crime, and were tried as such. As he was 16, Korey Wise was tried as an adult. Each of the men served more than five years for the crime that they did not commit.

Directors Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon allow the men to tell their stories; their childhoods, their formative years and their experiences at the hands of the police. These interviews are then interspersed with footage from the time, and interviews from historians, journalists, psychologists and supporters of the men as well as footage of New York City at the time, to give context to the story.

The story these men tell is fascinating and heartbreaking. The way that the story is told, without the use of a narrator, makes the audience feel as though we are being told a story in a personal manner. The media hysteria that followed this event is acknowledged, as is the fact that none of the police or prosecutors in the case took part in the documentary. Although the film does not out and out tell the audience what to think and which story to believe, the implication is clear without bashing us over the head with the moral of the story. Interview and archive footage are incredibly well used throughout the film, and authoritatively paint the picture for the audience while allowing them to reach their own conclusions… To an extent.

The film has become somewhat controversial for director Ken Burns – best known for his studies of American history and culture – he was subpoenaed to surrender his material for the film, as New York City still deals with the fallout of the case, but has refused.

In all, The Central Park Five is a well crafted and fascinating documentary about a miscarriage of justice that still has not been resolved. If there were to be a complaint, it would be that it is a little drawn out and the pacing is muddled, but the film is compelling enough to survive such criticism.

Rating: 4/5

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