Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon for PBS, the two hour 2012 documentary The Central Park Five is a harrowing piece that documents a travesty of justice that took place in the racially tense New York City of the late eighties. The movie begins by setting the stage and giving us a glimpse, by way of some carefully chosen archival footage, of just how bad racial tension was getting in New York City around this time. The police were claiming to be doing all that they could do but crime under Mayor David Dinkins was on the rise to the point where muggings were an everyday occurrence and the city was seeing an average of six murders a day. Compare this to the New York City of today and it almost seems like a different planet but the facts don't lie and the footage speaks for itself.
Then, one fateful night on April 9, 1989, a white female jogger went for a run through the park shortly after nine p.m. in the evening. As she approached the area in the park known as The Loch, she was brutally beaten and sexually assault. So bad were her injuries that friends called in to identify her were able to do so only by her ring. The police were quick to respond, rounding up a group of kids that were out 'wilding' in the park that night and who were responsible for a couple of other, unrelated assaults that took place. From there, they brought in five kids, all either black or Latino - Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam - for questioning. As none of these young men had anything to do with the rape, they initially denied it but after being held for prolonged periods of time and being coerced into admission by the NYPD officers of the 20th Precinct, with the exception of Salaam, they started to talk. But by talk, what they really did was confess, under serious pressure, to crimes that they had nothing to do with. The investigating officers were even able to get this testimony captured on video, sometimes with parents of the accused sitting in the room with them. The media went nuts over all of this and head a field day with sensationalist reporting and shock tactic headlines. These kids were guilty in the eyes of the press and most of the general public before they even went to trial.
As the jogger, eventually identified as Trisha Meili, making a slow but remarkable recovery the trial eventually began. Though the five maintained their innocence, the jury convicted primarily on the strength of the testimony and the accused sentenced to different stints in prison ranging from seven to thirteen years. Now normally this would be considered pretty damning evidence, but the flip side of this coin is that there was no DNA evidence tying any of the accused to the site or the victim, and on top of that, their stories conflicted with each other. Additionally, there were discrepancies in the time line of the case and for the most part the facts did not add up. That didn't stop NYPD detectives from taking the stand and standing their ground nor did it prevent the jury from reaching a guilty verdict across the board. While all of this was going on, a man named Matias Reyes, who was basically a serial rapist, was caught but the police did not connect him to the case. All five of the accused went to jail, but in 2002, Reyes confessed to the crime. His DNA did match that found at the crime scene and he was able to provide police with details about the incident that would not have been available to the general public. The five men were released and in 2003 filed a civil suit against the city which still remains in legal limbo at the time of this writing.
The Central Park Five not only documents these events very thoroughly but it also interviews all five of the initially accused and convicted men involved with the case quite extensively. We get to know their backgrounds, what their family situations were like, how they wound up in Central Park that night and most importantly of all, what happened behind closed doors in the police station. They discuss, very matter-of-factly, how they were convinced to admit guilt in relation to crimes that they had no part of and they discuss how they were treated by the detectives involved with the case. The documentary also features telling interviews with relatives of the then boys accused, as well as others involved in the case including a few of the defense lawyers, former late New York City Mayor Ed Koch and even a juror who admits he felt they were innocent but went along with the guilty verdict agreed upon by his peers. None of the police involved with the case or members of the prosecution agreed to be involved with the documentary, and their absence is rather telling.
What all of this serves to portray is a fascinating portrait of fear at work not just in the minds of the kids, but in the minds of the citizens of New York City as a whole. With crime seemingly spiraling out of control it made sense that the cops would want to convict as quickly and efficiently as possible, which is exactly what they did. When it comes at the cost of true justice, however, and results in innocents wrongly accused doing time for something they had no part in, well, that's quite simply disgusting. The documentary is well paced and very well put together, using plenty of clips and photographs to illustrate the points made. It all results in a fascinating piece that is as interesting as it is tragic and horrifying. Burns and company more or less let the five (with Antron McCray not appearing on camera and instead supplying voice over interviews only) telling their story on camera in their own words for the first time. Powerful, riveting stuff.
The Blu-ray Disc
The Central Park Five is presented on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080i 1.78.1 widescreen and while the picture quality isn't perfect, it's generally quite impressive. The newly shot interviews look pretty much flawless, they show excellent detail and perfect color reproduction and are as crisp and as clean as you could realistically hope for. With that said, like a lot of Burns' output, much of the documentary is made up or archival footage and photographs. Most of the photographs look nice and show good detail, while the archival footage varies in quality quite a bit. Given that most of the material used here is over twenty-years old and much of it is culled from newscasts that were shot on tape, the drop in quality when this material is used is not only understandable, it's inevitable. Overall though, things look just fine here.
Audio options are supplied in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track and in an LPCM 2.0 Stereo option with removable English SDH and Spanish SDH supplied. As has been mentioned, most of the content is handled by standard interviews so this is definitely a front heavy affair though the instrumental score used throughout the series is spread around nicely and too good effect. The music is clean and clear as the dialogue, it's all perfectly easy to follow and understand and while it's not something you'll reach for to demo your surround sound system, it suits the content very nicely.
The supplements on the disc kick off with some Interviews With The Filmmakers which is broken up into four parts - Making The Film, A New York Wilding, The Family Business and Subpoena. With a combined running time of just under nineteen minutes, here we get input from Sarah Burns (who also wrote the book of the same name), David McMahon and Ken Burns spliced in amongst clips and behind the scenes stills from the making of the movie. It's an interesting look into what was involved in making this but also at some of the events that have taken place since the five men were freed. Additionally, we get a thirteen minute featurette entitled After The Central Park Five which follows up with four of the men involved and updates us on what's happened since the documentary was made. It's a nice companion piece to the feature and worth checking out. Menus and chapter selection for the feature film are also included. All of the extras on the disc are presented in high definition.
PBS' Blu-ray release of The Central Park Five looks quite good and sounds alright and contains a few extras worth checking out but comes highly recommended more on the strength of the documentary itself than the presentation. Anyone with an interest in history or social justice, and really that should be all of us, ought to see this. It is, quite frankly, a depressing movie but so too is it a very important one and it stands as a picture that hopefully we can all learn something from.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.