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TELLURIDE, Colo. — One of the more thought-provoking films at this year’s Telluride Film Festival is The Central Park Five, a new documentary co-written and co-directed by the legendary filmmaker Ken Burns, his 29-year-old daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon. The two-hour film revisits one of the highest-profile crimes (the brutal rape of a 28-year-old white jogger in Central Park in 1989) and miscarriages of justice (the imprisonment of five young black men for the crime, despite their denials and a lack of evidence) in American history, with the participation of all five wronged men (four on camera and one via audio only). The film, which premiered at Cannes in May, will play at Toronto next week, and will be released theatrically by Sundance Selects on a date that has not yet been determined, had its first North American screenings here on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Like the case that it chronicles, it has provoked vigorous discussion and debate.
While the big name associated with the film is obviously Ken Burns, it seems to me that it was his daughter Sarah who was the driving force behind this doc. She told the audience at the film’s Sunday screening, “I’ve been working on this for 10 years.” It all started for her when she met two of the titular five men while working as an intern at a law firm, and began to learn about their case. She used it as the subject of her college thesis, and then a book, and now this film, noting, “It makes me very angry, and I hope it makes you angry too.”
That it did for virtually everyone in attendance. As demonstrated through archival news footage and newspaper clippings, this case embodied everything that was wrong with New York City in the mid- to late-eighties: troubled black youth, corrupt law enforcers, and prosecutors who were more anxious to do things that appeared to be fighting crime than they were to do the things necessary to actually fight crime in order to try to quell public unrest and vigilantism. Unfortunately, this cocktail of problems landed five not guilty — if not exactly “innocent” — young men in prison for most of their youth for a crime that they did not commit.
What makes the doc especially powerful is that the five men themselves discuss happened to them on that fateful night 13 years ago, as well as what led up to it and what ensued afterwards. It paints a shameful picture — namely, that the people in whom we are all told to place our trust aren’t always worthy of it, and certainly were not in this case.
What makes the doc problematic — to me, at least — is the fact that it largely glosses over the fact that these five young men weren’t exactly choir boys. Nothing that they ever did deserved the sort of punishment that they received — but the fact of the matter is that they never would have been arrested that night in the first place if they hadn’t been out breaking the law, a fact that is mentioned in the film almost in passing. (They were part of a large group of neighborhood youths who were “wilding,” or causing trouble for trouble’s sake — intimidating passersby, throwing rocks at bicyclists, and brutally assaulting a homeless man — not unlike the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange.)
I mention this only because I think that a doc is most credible when it gives equal consideration to all of the facts. When a film instead tries to whitewash history by emphasizing only the things that support a specific narrative — for example, showing some of the five in their little league uniforms or playing around the house back when they were kids, ostensibly to illustrate that they were not “bad kids” — I think it causes a discerning observer to wonder if other things are being withheld, as well. (I raised similar concerns upon seeing the various docs that have been made about the “West Memphis Three,” who were also terribly wronged, but should not be portrayed as saints, either, for they were not. Showing who they really were does not detract from the outrageousness of what befell them.)
Despite these gripes, I felt — and I think most others felt — that Central Park Five is a very well-made and engrossing film. One never knows how the famously quirky documentary branch of the Academy will respond to a film, and I will be interested to see if they find room for one or both of the two 2012 films that try to get to the bottom of an infamous crime — the other being Amy Berg‘s West of Memphis.
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