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“This is a damn shame.” That’s former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, reacting with absurd understatement to the wrongful imprisonment of five teenagers for rape, attempted murder, and other charges in what became known as the case of the Central Park jogger in 1989. The Central Park Five, a documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David MacMahon, tells the story of how the kids, ages 14 to 17 at the time, became victims of the law enforcement and judicial systems. But while their stories are engaging, the doc lingers a bit too long on the obvious, making the subject feel more appropriate for a Dateline special than a two-hour film.
It begins with the facts surrounding the attack on the 28-year-old investment banker, along with copious evidence of the city’s then-earned reputation as a crime capital. There’s footage and photography of 1989 New York; there’s a chubby Al Sharpton lamenting its state; there’s blame on the introduction of crack cocaine, which hit the city around 1984. Apparently, police didn’t do much about it. As historian Craig Steven Wilder says, “The dominant message was: No one cared if you lived or died.”
Yet when Trisha Meili was found nearly dead in the park, a witch hunt ensued. The teenagers, now grown men, who ended up being implicated—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—admit to being in the area but describe seeing other kids running wild that night (their descriptions even led to the term “wilding”), harassing people, and being violent. But Salaam insists the boys were just there to have fun, saying, “The only crime I committed that night is I jumped the turnstile” at a subway station.
But police brought the five in for questioning anyway, keeping them at the precinct all night attempting to break them separately, until each ended up “telling” on the others, making up stories because the cops told them that if they ratted, they could go home. That, astonishingly, compelled the boys to write phony confessions, and each was arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to jail, though they were all innocent. Each served several years, and with the exception of Santana, who went back to prison on an unrelated charge, each had been released by the time the true rapist admitted his guilt.
Because the end result is already known, the doc can become somewhat of a slog. The descriptions of how the police bamboozled the teens is, admittedly, alarming, but commentators can talk about this only so many times before it goes stale. The directors also include courtroom drawings, news conferences, and statements from authority figures such as then-Mayor Ed Koch, who comes off as a real dick when he starts saying “the alleged” perpetrators and then interrupts himself to irritatingly remark, “We always have to say alleged, because it is a requirement.”
But the film’s end is when things really get unnecessary, with childhood photos of the five—yes, they were so innocent then, and they remained innocent when sent to jail—along with too many comments about what they lost (youth, etc.). The story of the Central Park Five can be summarized in a paragraph; this 119-minute treatment is about 60 minutes too long.