The Central Park Five by Ken Burns

By Moira Sullivan

In 1989 a white woman was brutally assaulted and raped while jogging in Central Park.  Five teenage African American were arrested and charged with the crime.  They were picked up for being among a street gang of about 25 young black and brown men that had assaulted joggers and pedestrians in the park that night in a violent male ritual called “wilding”. 

The five teens appear in the documentary –Antron McCray (who chose to only use his voice to protect his anonymity), Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam. 

The crime received tremendous media attention, and the investigation seized the teens and tried to piece the story together and make it fit with the presence of the young men in the park.

The accused were racially profiled and upon conviction spent time in prison from 6 to 13 years despite conflicting testimony and lack of DNA evidence. In testimony the teenagers admitted to the crime but later said they were tricked, coerced and just wanted to get it over with by giving up. In 2002 Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer serving a life sentence for other crimes, confessed to the assault of the woman and claimed he acted alone. DNA evidence confirmed it and testimony by Reyes he could not have known from the crime scene. Despite that New York detectives still believe that the five teenagers were accomplices and that their confessions don’t lie. Burns' material used in the making of this film has since been subpoenaed by the New York City but refuses to turn the material over. The Central Park Five has brought $250 million lawsuit against the NYC for wrongful conviction, The information that the filmmakers have would help to collaborate that the NYC prosecution had probable cause to proceed in their convictions and that the confessions were sound. But the convictions and charges were set aside and the Central Park Five were released.

Directors Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon interviewed various experts in the judicial system, relatives and the accused and have assembled the pieces into a complex tapestry of testimony. The interviews revolve around the story of the five men with each of them explaining how they were as young people.  There is footage of the young men when they were indicted and admitted to the crime. 

The directors examine the environment of New York at the time, the financial and educational problems and neighborhoods falling apart. Crime was on the upswing with six murders a day and crack had made its inroads where poor black and brown teenagers were targeted. The story told with extensive testimony, with dozens of experts include former NY Mayor Ed Koch who called the assault the crime of the century, former NY Mayor David Dinkins and former NY Governor Mario Cuomo who condemned the perpetrators.

The one person that does not receive much attention even if this crime was about her was the unknown woman jogger at the time. It feels eerie to see the story revolve around this event, which serves as a backdrop, for everything that happened after that was representative of New York’s crime wave at the time. The jogger was a white woman, wearing a white tank top and white jogging pants, a woman without an identity. When she is spoken about it is as the rape victim. The blue chip investment banker stands in sharp contrast to the low income teenage men of color. The racial profiling of these black men demonstrates how inflamed New York was with racial tensions and the crime is used to make an example of that. Since then the Central Park Jogger who has no memory of her assault, Trisha Meili has come forward, and has written a book I Am the Central Park Jogger. As a postscript she is mentioned in the documentary. But this film is not about her or her crime but the wrongful conviction of her would be assailants.

This was an interracial rape. If Meili had been raped in Harlem according to a lawyer it wouldn’t have been of interest.  A woman who was raped in Brooklyn and thrown off the roof got little attention since it was within the same racial group.

The Central Park Five debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes. Ken Burns and one of the Central Park Five Raymond Santana were in San Francisco to promote the documentary recently and gave an exclusive interview to Movie Magazine. Here now is the director and Raymond Santana.

© 2012 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 12/12/12
Movie Magazine International