In her 1991 essay “Sentimental Journeys,” Joan Didion ruthlessly laid bare the city’s need to create a comforting moral out of senseless violence through the filter of the Central Park Five, tracing the narrative arc that led from a young, middle-class, white, female jogger being raped and beaten in 1989 to five young black men being convicted without a shred of physical evidence. The outcome of the outrage, Didion reported with some asperity, was that five men went to prison and the jogger became an unwitting symbol of all New Yorkers who wanted to rise above the city’s muck.
There is no comforting narrative in “The Central Park Five,” a new documentary about the investigation and trial, because what happened is as senseless as the original crime seemed at the time. Relying on period footage and contemporary interviews with the men convicted—Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Antron McCray—filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon methodically strip the sensationalism from the story to reveal the infuriating truth: Those prosecuting the case found their narrative early, stuck with it in the face of contradictory evidence, and ruined the lives of five innocent teenagers.
A coup of the film is the inclusion of the original, videotaped confessions that overrode any doubts about the men’s innocence. Even without physical evidence, seeing them on tape confessing to the crime was enough for the jury to convict them all—despite their reciting contradictory tales. The present-day interviews are remarkable for the lack of rage on the part of the since-acquitted men; they seem exhausted by recalling the ordeal, as if they had spent so long talking about what happened that the telling relies more on muscle memory than on remembrance.
Where the film falters is in the lack of the other side, the men and women who worked tirelessly to ensure that the five went to jail. The filmmakers can’t be blamed for that, though: Everyone concerned in the investigation refused to participate. Without hearing from Linda Fairstein or Elizabeth Lederer, who made their reputations with the case, “The Central Park Five” feels somewhat one-sided. Then again, as the stories and evidence mount to create a picture of a willfully wrongheaded prosecution team, what narrative could those involved spin to explain their conduct?
Critic’s Score: A-
Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon
Starring Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Antron McCray