Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon. 14A. 119 min. Opens Dec. 25 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
When a female investment banker was beaten and raped while jogging one night in Central Park in April 1989, news of the crime preyed on the already-heightened anxieties of New Yorkers. Sensationalistic media reports fuelled fears that city streets were swarming with marauding gangs of teens who were more animal than human. There was even a word for this new pastime—“wilding” soon took its place alongside “crack baby” in the pantheon of terms demonizing America’s underclass. Unfortunately, the word’s authenticity was about as dubious as the confessions of the five black and Latino teenagers who’d been hastily fingered for the crime by cops, then steamrolled by prosecutors, city politicians, and reporters eager to see justice done.
Based on the book by Sarah Burns and co-directed by the author with her husband, David McMahon, and her doc-legend dad Ken Burns, The Central Park Five is a conventionally rendered but dramatically compelling account of the crime and the media firestorm and legal travesty that ensued. Though hampered by an understandable lack of mea culpas from the people who worked so hard to ensure the five were convicted in both the court of public opinion and the kind that gives out lengthy prison sentences (theirs ranged from six to 13 years), the film still does an admirable job of presenting the particulars and correcting the record. As you might expect, the exonerations—which were prompted by a bona-fide confession by the serial rapist who really committed the crime—garnered far less publicity than the original convictions. That’s why The Central Park Five is both a valuable forum for its subjects to talk about their experiences and a potent reminder that it’s wise to be wary of any story that comes prepackaged.