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Film Review

The Central Park Five

Two generations of Americans have grown up on Ken Burns's documentaries. He has been immensely productive and influential, producing a film, on the average, every other year. His films are time machines, letting us travel back to see and truly understand important aspects of American history. Brooklyn Bridge (1981), his first, a popular and critical success, was followed by 21 more, including The Shakers (1984), Huey Long (1985), The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Lewis & Clark (1997), Not for Ourselves Alone [women's suffrage[(1999), Mark Twain (2001), The War [WW ll] (2007), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011), and The Dust Bowl (2012). Few other documentary film makers have achieved either his range or impact.. His best work, such as The Civil War, the most watched PBS program in history, is filled with previously unseen photographs and period music. They are memorable and surge with emotion. Can any of us forget Major Sullivan Ballou's heartrending farewell to his wife written on the eve of a battle, accompanied by the sad strains of a violin?

Burns's daughter, Sarah Burns, recently wrote a book, The Central Park Five, about a notorious crime in New York City in 1989 and a terrible miscarriage of justice that sent five innocent young men to prison. Then, with the help of her father, and husband, David McMahon, turned the book into a gripping documentary examining how these boys could have been accused and convicted, despite clear evidence to the contrary. The Central Park Five opens with a long tracking shot in Central Park at night, with the real rapist's audible confession, scrolling across the screen. It's a powerful beginning to a powerful documentary.

In the 1980's, New York City seemed to be disintegrating. Reeling from near bankruptcy, an epidemic of drugs, soaring rates of violent crime, and galloping racial tension, New Yorkers were frightened and the police overwhelmed. On the evening of April 19, 1989, a slight, 28 year old white woman was raped and severely beaten as she jogged through the north end of Central Park. She nearly died from head injuries and loss of blood. Her doctors did not expect her to live. Comatose for several weeks, the woman known only as the Central Park Jogger slowly regained most of her faculties over the next five months, but was unable to recall anything that happened that night. The police had received reports that a large gang of kids, black and Hispanic, was harassing people in the park, throwing rocks at cyclists, threatening others, and beating a homeless man. The police ultimately arrested five Harlem youths, between the ages of 14 to 16. Four were black; one Hispanic: Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yuseef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise. Separated from one another, deprived of food and sleep, the boys were interrogated for many hours without their parents being present.

The Central Park Five asks us to consider how reliable are confessions to a crime, and whether psychological pressure and harsh questioning can force someone to confess to a crime he didn't commit? Law enforcement experts and psychologists know that they do. If an innocent adult can be made to confess to a truly awful crime, knowing that long years of prison await, what about teenagers? Aren't they even more vulnerable to pressure?

The case of the Central Park Jogger dominated front page headlines for days, and the police were under enormous pressure to solve the crime. So the detectives lied to the boys, claiming that some of the other boys had accused them of the rape, and that their fingerprints were found on the victim's clothing. Their parents had been notified and went to the police station, but were not permitted to communicate with their children. This went on for nearly two days. All were told they could go home as soon as they confessed. Finally, frightened and exhausted, without understanding the seriousness of the charges, they all signed separate confessions. None of the confessions matched each others' statements. Every boy had a different description of the victim, a different version of who did what, and a different location. It seems clear, even then and certainly in retrospect, that these "confessions" bore little, if any, relationship to the facts of the crime. But as one attorney noted, "Confessions trump everything, including witnesses and other evidence". The DNA evidence did not match any of the boys, and was from another individual. Despite all this, the boys went to trial. With one exception their attorneys seemed incompetent (one dozed during the trial), and that one exception is interviewed. He said it was clear that the confessions were nonsense and coerced, and that the boys were innocent. Only one juror agreed and held out for 10 days, but finally collapsed under the pressure of the other jury members. He is interviewed, and to this day regrets caving in.

The five boys served their sentences; some even earned degrees while in prison, and all were released. But Santana told his story to another prisoner while in prison. That prisoner, Matias Reyes, told another inmate that he felt sorry for the boys because they were serving time for a crime that he committed. Eventually Matias was questioned, and admitted being the sole attacker. His account of events exactly matched the evidence, location, and time. DNA evidence, too, matched. In addition, Reyes had attacked and killed a pregnant mother in the Upper East Side just a few weeks before the attack on the jogger, plus other very violent rapes. In 2002, Reyes was convicted of the Central Park Jogger rape. The boys' convictions were immediately overturned, against the objections of the prosecutors. A year later the boys and their parents sued New York City for civil rights violations. The City has consistently denied any wrong doing and has aggressively fought the lawsuit for the past nine years. No City official agreed to be interviewed for the film, and a few months ago the City subpoenaed the filmmakers for all outtakes and notes used in making this film. None of this sad story inspires confidence in our criminal justice system.

Although there are a number of articulate talking heads, such as a NY Times reporter ("We were not skeptical enough") and a social psychologist, and considerable archival video footage, this film is not a typical Ken Burns films, which look almost exclusively at the distant past. Instead, The Central Park Five probes recent history: a nervous city, a notorious crime, a terrible injustice that continues to the present. Nowhere do we see Burns's signature zooming out of an old photograph to reveal the unexpected. The film is incredibly revealing in its own way, not of one crime, but of two. The first committed by Matias Reyes had only one victim; the second committed by the Manhattan DA's office had five.

We may have forgotten the racially charged atmosphere of 1989, but through newspaper headlines ("Wilding") and broadcast clips, Burns forces us to remember the lynch mob mentality that much of the media encouraged. The film treats the rapidly unfolding events as chapters, with onscreen titles for time, date, and location, which helps us to understand the chronology. Three of the boys, now in their late 30's, appear on screen. They are riveting. Although nearly two hours long, the film is tightly edited, and moves quickly. Well paced, and always powerful, often moving, this is one of the best documentaries of the year. Clearly, Sarah Burns inherited the filmmaker genes. Every person in the criminal justice system should be required to see this film. Just opened at the Embarcadero and the Shattuck (Berkeley).

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