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Written and Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon

The New York City of 1989 is not the New York City of today. Before its streets were cleaned up in the mid to late 1990’s, it was the crime capital of the country. There were so many crimes being committed at the time that there were too many to even report on in the press. There was one case though that got the attention of the entire nation, known then as the “Central Park Jogger” case. A woman was jogging at night through the park when she was brutally attacked, raped and left for dead. Around that same time, a group of 30 or so teenagers were terrorizing other park patrons. It would seem natural to anyone to detain and question those same young people about the attack on the jogger, and this is exactly what the NYC police department did. When there was clearly no evidence linking them to the crime though, it would also seem natural to drop the case against them altogether. This is not what the NYC police department did at all.

Ken Burns, along with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and a longtime producing partner, David McMahon, tackles this horrific incident in his latest documentary, THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE. I was but a boy of roughly 12 when this took place so all of this is new to me. Of course I knew that NYC used to be a much more violent place than it is now, but I did not however realize that this violence and the tension that ensued from it, was in fact something of a barometer to measure the heightened racial unrest in the city, and the country as a whole. The rape victim is a white woman. The five young men who were accused of her assault are not (four are black and one is hispanic). With the economic classes as divided as they were at the time, and racism rampant both on the streets and in the media, the five young men accused of this crime became examples for the white masses of how uncontrollable the black and hispanic youth had become. When it became clear that they were not involved in the crime at all, everyone who had orchestrated this modern day lynching, from the police to the prosecution to the press, needed to make sure those boys remained those examples, Not only did they have to save face but they also needed to satisfy the public’s disturbing need to see someone pay for this heinous act.


THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE features interviews with all five of the accused. One by one, they each describe their experience of the night in question and the hell that their lives became for the duration of their trial and the years they each spent in prison (all five were convicted and all five convictions were vacated in 2002 when the real rapist came forward). There is no shortage of stock footage and photography to help the filmmakers create a vivid picture of 1989 New York, but the linear structure the film follows sometimes stunts the film’s emotional impact. Considering everything they’ve been through, not to mention the gravitas of the entire ordeal’s larger racial implications, the five subjects, now all in their 30’s, very rarely let all their emotions out for the camera. They are also all telling the same story so it can get a tad tedious from time to time. Their experience, as well as the joggers, is an injustice so grand that it nearly tore the city apart at the time. I would have just expected that more of that outrage would have survived to this day and found its way into this film.


Your turn!

How many sheep would you give The Central Park Five?


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