Both meticulous and inflammatory, the documentary The Central Park Five reexamines the notorious 1989 case of the Central Park jogger, a horrifying assault in which Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old Manhattanite, was beaten, raped, and left for dead while on her evening run. More specifically, the movie looks at another horrifying fact: Five teenagers, four black and one Latino, were arrested, tried, and sentenced to stiff prison terms for the crime, only to be exonerated 10 years ago, after the real attacker confessed.
How could this second crime have occurred? The film asks that question but only partly answers it, and in the process it raises an even more troubling one.
Directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, with a tone of measured outrage, the film powerfully argues that racism explains everything. And it probably does explain a lot. In a prologue, the filmmakers set the stage, painting an edgy city in an edgy time of wide economic disparity and simmering class resentment that sometimes boiled over into violence. The attack on a young, upwardly mobile white woman, allegedly by a "wolf pack," as many news reports described it, crystallized widespread fears and prejudices.
It didn't matter that the five youngsters' confessions didn't line up with one another (or even with the known facts of the case), or that the DNA evidence found on the victim matched none of theirs. The narrative of children run amok in the streets - or "wilding," as it became known - coincided with what the filmmakers suggest we wanted to believe about social collapse at the end of the 20th century.
Burns and his collaborators make a convincing case. But a few nagging mysteries remain at the end of the film, despite their attempts to address them. The most glaring is why the five teens - Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., and Kharey Wise - confessed to the crime when the other 25 or 30 kids who admittedly were roaming the park that night, harassing and sometimes assaulting strangers, did not.
The explanations offered by the five wrongfully convicted men feel inadequate, and will probably always feel inadequate, at least to anyone who has never been interrogated, and possibly bullied, for hours and deprived of sleep. (Four of the men appear on camera; McCray consented only to voice interviews. Police and prosecutors declined to be interviewed.)
There's an awful indictment implied, but never explicitly stated, by The Central Park Five. Maybe what we're really frightened of (or should be) isn't so much packs of wilding adolescents, but the terrifying, and all too often devastating, flaws of our criminal justice system. They are flaws, the filmmakers hint, that could devour any of us.
It's a harrowing thought, and one that arguably deserves deeper exploration. I only wish that The Central Park Five had pursued this more aggressively, without pulling punches.
Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. Distributed by IFC.
Running time: 1 hour, 59 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating.