Sarah Burns’ Central Park Five is an example of documentary filmmaking at it’s best.
The filmmakers movie about five teenage boys wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder takes the viewer back to the 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which four black teenagers — Antron McCray, Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam — and one Hispanic teenager, Raymond Santana — were indicted, tried and convicted for the rape and near–fatal beating of Trisha Meili.
The men, ages 14 to 17 at the time, served sentences for a crime none of them committed.
Burns pieces together the story from the fateful night in Central Park through the present, using archival footage of news reports, pundit commentary and facts from the case. Burns’ most devastating material comes from on-camera interviews with four of the five men who lost up to 13 years in prison.
With infuriating precision and expert editing, Burns pieces together the culture surrounding the incident — both in New York and the police department — that resulted in coerced confessions from children. Then the film traces the miscarriage of justice resulting from confessions that were blatantly inconsistent, yet powerfully persuasive. The boys went to prison because of the confessions, in spite of the fact that no DNA from the boys was found at the crime scene and no evidence from the scene was ever found on the boys.
Journalists, defense attorneys, a psychologist and a historian fill in the shameful blanks about systemic injustice, media myopia and the prevailing presumptions about black and Hispanic men that convicted five innocent children and subjected them to adult punishment. Burns’ sources speak with reason and thoughtfulness, which magnifies the sense of humiliation that just won’t stick to the system that railroaded the young men and forever abridged their potential. That each freed man speaks without bitterness should be an insult to the American consciousness, but as no officials involved with the case were ever censured, no just injury has been born by an errant public.
Central Park Five is a searing indictment of a justice system crippled by political jockeying, and a painful damning of what feels like — in 2013 — intractable racism.
The men filed a civil suit against the detectives who investigated them and against the city of New York in 2003. The case remains unresolved.
Oh, and the actual assailant in the Central Park jogger case? His name is Matias Reyes.