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CANNES — With issues connected to racial profiling acquiring fresh resonance in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, the timing could hardly be more propitious for The Central Park Five. A meticulously reported chronicle of a case that shook New York in 1989 and remains a mark of shame on the city ten years after the convictions were vacated, the film incisively documents a travesty of justice that echoes the infamous Scottsboro Boys railroading of the 1930s.
While national broadcast on PBS is planned for 2013 or the following year, the filmmakers are angling for a theatrical release in the meantime. Significant specialized play in New York seems a no-brainer. The project was co-directed, written and produced by non-fiction filmmaking luminary Ken Burns with his daughter Sarah Burns (author of the book The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding), and her husband David McMahon. While relatively conventional in style and structure, and lacking the complex narration and intricate visual textures that are among the senior Burns’ signatures, the film tells a shocking story in eloquent, even-handed and affecting terms.
In 1989 a white woman from New York’s Upper East Side was found brutally beaten and raped at the bottom of a ravine in Central Park in critical condition. Five black and Latino youths from Harlem aged between 14 and 16 were arrested, and after an extended period of aggressive interrogation, separately confessed to having participated in the attack. Their statements were rife with contradicting elements, and further investigation produced zero genetic evidence. There were also discrepancies in the chronology indicating that the boys were somewhere else in the park when the attack took place. A trail leading to where the body was dragged suggested that only two people — victim and aggressor — were involved.
The film shows clearly that the suspects were so addled by questioning that in order to be able to go home, they simply said what they thought the assistant district attorney handling the case wanted to hear. It also illustrates how, once the “confessions” were out there and the sensationalistic media had helped create a lynch-mob mentality — coining the term “wilding” to describe gangs of teens in rampaging wolfpacks — the absence of proof became secondary.
The filmmakers smartly contextualize the central incident within a broad-canvas picture of New York bouncing back from an economic slump but increasingly divided. The financial sector was thriving but the huge impact of crack on the city’s drug culture was among several factors fueling crime, violence, racial tensions and increased poverty. That climate fed political, legal and public eagerness to nail culprits as quickly as possible.
The swift arrests in the case of the then-unnamed Central Park rape victim were seen as a badge of triumph for city law enforcement. Despite lack of concrete evidence, all five boys were convicted on multiple charges and served between six and 13 years. But a chance encounter between the oldest of them and convicted serial rapist Matias Reyes years later yielded his free admission of sole responsibility for the Central Park rape. That claim was substantiated in DNA evidence.
In addition to extensive use of their original video statements, interviews with the five subjects provide an illuminating picture of the coercion and confusion that led to their false evidence, and to the ongoing fallout in their lives. (One of the wrongly convicted group, Antron McCray, chose not to appear on camera but is represented in audio interviews.) Other key observers, including family members and journalists, point up the damning contrast between the media frenzy surrounding the arrests and the low-profile coverage when the youths were cleared.
Particularly strong contributions come from veteran New York Times city reporter Jim Dwyer and historian Craig Steven Wilder, who help make the point that neither the D.A.’s office, the police nor the press have ever fully acknowledged the extent to which they screwed up. Wilder is not alone in suggesting that, had the victim been a non-white woman in a less-affluent part of the city, the hysteria would have been considerably less.
Editor Michael Levine assembles the detailed information into a lucid, compelling narrative, underscored by Doug Wamble’s refreshingly unemphatic music, which lets the story’s horrors speak for themselves.
The directors ignore opportunities for suspense by pointing early on to a parallel investigation of other crimes committed by Reyes and to his guilt for the assault in question. But as a dense procedural, this is fascinating stuff; its miscarriage of justice stokes righteous anger and its account of lost youth and irreparably damaged lives is conveyed with moving solemnity. The film also stands to have an impact in the civil suit brought by the Central Park Five against the city in 2003, which remains unresolved.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screening)
Production company: Florentine Films
Director-screenwriter-producers: Ken Burns, David McMahon, Sarah Burns
Directors of photography: Buddy Squires, Anthony Savini
Music: Doug Wamble
Editor: Michael Levine
No rating, 119 minutes
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