Like most crime documentaries concerning grievous judicial mishaps, The Central Park Five is obsessed with facts. At the start of the film, we learn of how four black teens and one Latino were falsely convicted of raping and beating a white female banker on the east side of Central Park in 1989—and we feel a checklist forming. Sure enough, the nervously paced oral history that follows doesn’t so much lead us through events as tick off data points with a comprehensive vengeance. We’re first provided sociological context: Experts describe New York City in the late ‘80s as a septic melting pot, full of seething tribes and overrun with crime, while grisly stock footage confirms the assessment. The focus then narrows: Methodically crosscut (and cross-examined) testimony from the defendants, their families, and their attorneys details the boys’ initial arrests for petty after-hours violence, and their subsequent confessions under police-administered pressure for a crime they couldn’t have committed. These facts, arranged as they are, eventually form an incontrovertible argument. We can only conclude that the Central Park Five, none of whom could be linked to the act for which he was imprisoned, were the unfortunate victims of a racially hysterical climate.
The facts involved in this story, however, are no longer its most relevant aspect. Unlike the Paradise Lost trilogy, among other journalistic examples, The Central Park Five decries a miscarriage of justice that’s already been reversed. In the early 2000s, a man serving time for unrelated rape charges confessed to the sexual assault, and the original convictions were vacated after an investigation confirmed his story. This revelation in turn provoked the requisite literature: lawsuits, essays, and at least a single book, written by one of the documentary’s directors. All of this makes the corroborative zeal with which Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon approach the Five unnecessary; the film vehemently defends its subjects’ innocence with repetitive timelines, charts, and crisscrossing verbal accounts when more matter-of-fact means would have been sufficient. And though relentlessly and admirably logical, the movie constantly glosses over the buried human element: the complicated influence the event and its sociopolitical aura might have had on the minds of those involved. As one talking head parses it, “Race, power, and politics make [justice] difficult.” This is undoubtedly true, if rather sloppily posited. But what about the inner lives also made difficult by race, power, and politics?
The doc is most effective when it takes fact for granted and delves instead into affect, especially by way of the Five’s self-reflections on their mistreatment. In one uncanny sequence, the boys describe being coerced into confessing for the assault; via NYPD archival tapes, we watch their jejune faces mechanically recite the scripts fed to them by detectives, and the past appears to be haunting us in ghoulishly low resolution. Later, one of the boys recalls his surprise at seeing an unfavorable court artist’s rendering of him for use in news broadcasts. “That’s me?” he says, frowning at the wide brow, sinister eyes, and impudent scowl in the caricatured drawing. These instances form a rare opportunity to examine where sociology ends and psychology begins—the brutally tense cleft between which the statistic becomes the individual. The film quickly backs away from these moments of personal insight whenever they appear, however, and instead continues its plodding chronology of forensic failure.
This error of focus becomes all the more unfortunate when one considers the Five’s failure to wring any restitution from the state of New York for their abuse, because it’s not simply that ten years of life were robbed from each of them. Each one’s sense of racial and national identity, as well as his consciousness, was likely transformed and embittered in ways that remain vague. Did, for instance, the single Latino arraigned feel any resentment toward the four African Americans with which he was lumped? What are the Five’s thoughts on the ever-elusive “American Dream” after all that’s happened? Such inquiries would respect the personhood of each of the Five, as well as his socioeconomic background, in a manner that should be de rigueur for an investigative documentary—and while the film’s lack of interest in its subjects’ individuality is hardly a damnable offense, it renders whatever material here isn’t redundant humanistically anemic. One interviewee, bemoaning the lack of media attention bestowed on the Five’s release from prison, intones that guilt is always a better story. Ironically, all but 20 minutes of The Central Park Five is devoted to that same guilt—without which, one suspects, black and Latino slum kids still aren’t worth much attention.