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The Central Park Five
“Alleged” was perhaps the single most important word I learned in journalism school. It’s the word we’re all taught to carefully insert before a suspect’s accusations, mostly to avoid getting sued, but ostensibly to respect a tenet of the U.S. justice system: “Innocent until proven guilty.”
I was reminded of this while watching The Central Park Five, Ken Burns’ documentary about five black and Latino teenagers who confessed, in writing and on video, to the brutal 1989 Central Park Jogger rape—a rape that evidence later showed they could not have committed. Journalists, police officers and anyone remotely interested in justice and racism should watch this.
Central Park Five is as visual, taut and horrifying as any crime thriller movie. It’s as masterfully executed as one would expect of Burns, including an astonishing amount of contemporary footage and news clips.
All of the now exonerated Central Park Five men are interviewed, but Raymond Santana appears the most often. He’s a well-spoken, affable-seeming man whose youth, like all the others, was taken from him by a rabid media and apparently bullheaded prosecutors.
The documentary does its best to explain why scared, sleep-deprived teenage boys confessed in detail to something they didn’t do, and why journalists of the day latched on to a story that was full of holes from the start. Unfortunately, we never get to hear any explanations from the police or prosecutors.
One of the oddest and most powerful moments comes toward the end, when a voiceover from Matias Reyes, the actual rapist, describes why he came forward and told police he did it after bumping into one of the five, Kharey Wise, in prison. Reyes talks about how he saw Wise’s misery and it seemed unfair that a kid be imprisoned for something he didn’t do. It’s powerful compassion coming from a serial rapist and murderer.
Other reviews have said Central Park Five doesn’t add many new details for people who remember what happened, but I don’t think that’s the intended audience. Burns made the film with his daughter, Sarah, who, like me, is too young to remember the events. (She first learned about the events as a Yale law student and went on to write a 2011 book, also titled The Central Park Five.) The documentary seems more fitting for millennials who are becoming adults in an America where the 24/7 media only seems increasingly ravenous for scandal, lurid details and fast convictions. It would do us all good to remember the spirit, and not just the letter, of “alleged.”
The Central Park Five screens at the Wilma Wed., Feb. 20, at 7:45 PM.