Central Park Five, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/27/12 04:19:55
"The Central Park Five" states the reason for its existence plainly toward the end: To in some small way close the gap between how loudly its subjects' guilt was proclaimed twenty-odd years ago and the attention paid to their being declared innocent after serving seven to thirteen years in jail. It's a worthy goal, and while getting the film in front of all the people who followed the news back then is likely impossible, those that do see it will certainly absorb its recounting of events.When a woman jogging in New York's Central Park was raped and beaten into a coma in April 1989, it made the national news and became a cause célèbre in the local press. The police connected it with other violent incidents going on in the park at around the same time, and within two days, they had confessions from five shockingly young suspects - 14-year-olds Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson & Yusef Salaam and 16-year-old Korey Wise. That all were black or hispanic while the victim was white inflamed the situation further, and the district attorney had little trouble getting convictions a year later. A seeming triumph for the criminal justice system that New York badly needed - except that the five were innocent, their confessions coerced in marathon sessions without parents or lawyers.
The story touches upon a number of hot-button issues, either directly or as a tangent - race relations, capital punishment, what opportunities prisoners should have, and just why proper police procedure is so important. What the filmmakers can focus on is limited by access - none of the involved police officers nor any current city official chose to participate - but in some ways, this helps put the situation in context better than having a former NYPD detective tell the camera about the pressure they were under to close the case or how he regrets the assumptions he made back then. This is the world that the Five were living in, and how it got that way or how it evolved since then is irrelevant to their story.
There are some outsiders who chime in - Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins, journalist Jim Dwyer, historian Craig Steven Wilder, and others - but the bulk of the film is the Five and their loved ones telling the story in their own words. They are not all gifted storytellers; they speak simply and seldom connect their experiences to anything else. And yet, their words have weight beyond just that which comes from the audience knowing that these are first-person accounts or serious matters. The lack of embellishment is compelling; and while the Five have very similar stories, the understated differences between them speak volumes: The effect of a longer sentence spent entirely in adult facilities on Korey Wise is clear, for instance, and some viewers may find their perceptions of Antron McCray's choice to only do voiceover rather than video interviews change over the course of the film.
The Five's stories are well-balanced, supplanted by the other interviewees and archival footage/photographs. Those who have seen director Ken Burns's sprawling historical documentary miniseries on PBS will recognize the style: "Talking heads" and historical documents, with little to nothing in the way of recreations or revisitations; it's rare to see a direct contrast between the narrators then and now. Writer/director/producers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon lay their facts out clearly without stifling their subjects' emotions. They save their most overt outrage for pointed, barbed strikes which sting all the more for their surroundings.Which is not to suggest that "The Central Park Five" is anything less than an angry movie - even its moments of relief are filled with outrage. But it's arguably made at the right time, when the wound is still festering but everyone involved can think and speak straight about it, and it's assembled extremely well.
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