Review: ‘The Central Park Five’ Is Well-Executed, Non-Sensationalist Documentary Gold

By  · Published on November 24th, 2012

Editor’s note: The Central Park Five begins a limited roll-out today, so here is a re-run of our Cannes Film Festival review, originally published on May 27, 2012.

The Cannes official selection usually includes a couple of interesting documentaries to cleanse the pallet of all the high-art and fiction, and this feature-length portrait of the infamous New York rape case certainly offered something more for those film fans who like to get their factual kicks, from director/producer trio Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon.

For those whose who are not familiar with the film’s story, The Central Park Five case chronicles the 1989 rape of a white female jogger, who was discovered badly beaten and barely alive in Central Park. Five black and Latino youths from Harlem, just 14 to 16 years old, were subsequently taken in for questioning, and under coercion and pressurized circumstances confessed separately (or implicated one another) to their involvement in the beating and rape. Their confessions were contradictory, and certain details of the evidence didn’t corroborate their guilt, but the five were charged and sent to prison regardless, serving between 6 and 13 years for a crime they maintained never to have committed.

It was a case that outraged America, lighting an already charged touch paper and opening new debate relating to capital punishment at the same time as pushing certain racial frictions further apart. Despite the obvious temptation, this documentary, based on Sarah Burns’ book “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding,” is never overtly provocative, never sensationalist and careful to offer the facts of the story in as intricate a fashion as possible. As the story progresses beyond their incarceration and subsequent freedom (all apart from the eldest of the group, Korey Wise, who was tried as an adult and given a longer sentence), it is revealed that a fellow inmate, Matias Reyes admitted to being solely responsible for the Central Park rape after a meeting with Wise behind bars sparked an unlikely attack of guilt.

All-in-all, it’s a simple but artful chronological account of the case – occasionally embellished by personal photographs of the five, and detailed further through media coverage from the time – clippings and video footage used to establish the immediate response to the case. Stylistics never interfere with substance here, although there has clearly been a lot of good work done in Michael Levine’s editing suite, and the stock footage, clippings and music choices are all well-thought through and impressively executed.

The film is clearly outraged, but the overall sentiment is that expressed by historian Craig Steven Wilder (who plays one of the most engaging parts of the story’s relation) – not to hold up a mirror to society in order to learn from the mistakes made but simply to acknowledge the badness of the people involved, and the capacity for all of us to be bad. One of the most enduring messages of the film is that the young men’s innocence only attracted a whisper in comparison to the coverage of their initial trials: thanks to public outrage and media sensationalism, the story of five black and Latino youths raping a white woman was more worthy of note than the revelation of truth later.

This is the rare explicit comment on the issue of racism in the case: the film preferring a gentler comment on the racially aggravated climate of the time, rather than pushing the message of institutional racism too heavily. For the film-makers, the fundamental tragedy of the case, both for the victim, the five youths wrongly convicted and their families and the twin questions of integrity and the dangers of social outrage and media sensationalism are far more intriguing. The five men involved in the story show remarkable composure and dignity in taking part (with only one choosing to remain off camera), and it is their voices and their take on the events that really offers the most poignant element of the documentary.

There is only one reservation to note here: the argument lacks some balance – if there are those who still stand by the prosecutions (as the film implies), then it might have been valuable to hear those dissenting voices. As it is, all we are offered is glimpses of the sensationalist negative responses to the Five’s absolution, which offer a rare, explicit hint at the film-makers’ own outrage at those responses.

In Wilder, and other chief contributors like New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer, they have chosen excellent, articulate mouth pieces to both relate the story and offer some commentary on the situation, including the murkier elements of the case against the Five. Crucially they never resort to sticking the knife in fully to those who saw the Five imprisoned, but instead turn the focus on the fundamental social issues that underpinned the entire situation.

National TV broadcast on PBS is planned for some time in 2013 or 2014, but luckily for those who can’t wait that long, the news on the street is that the filmmakers are trying to confirm a theatrical release before then. And it is well worth seeing in a cinema.

The Upside: The Central Park Five story is enormously engaging, and the presentation, and in particular the editing are very accomplished.

The Downside: An element of balance would have turned a very good documentary into an exceptional one.

On the Side: Over a month ago, the City of New York issued a subpoena to obtain all of the research from the film. The filmmakers have not obliged.