Methodical in presentation and diligent in addressing the social consequences of a miscarriage in justice, Ken Burns’ The Central Park Five is an incredibly powerful documentary that deconstructs both the particulars of a crime and a melting pot of a city. Following the violent assault and rape of a white, female jogger in New York City’s Central Park, five minority teenagers were charged with the crime. The heinousness of the event would be exploited by the media, wherein the demand for swift police work hindered a thorough investigation. In a desperate ploy to please a downtrodden city and address media criticisms, convictions were made against innocent men.
Crucial to The Central Park Five’s success is the strict methodology and attention to details that Burns subscribes to early in his film. Unlike recent documentaries hoping to implicate their audience (Bart Layton’s The Imposter) or inspire greater theoretical thought (Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop), The Central Park Five is concise and direct. With no frills and motivated purely by passionate logic, Burns dissects the culture of 1980s New York City –a time and place plagued by crime, drugs, and growing economical strife. Before going into the specifics of the case itself, Burns sets up the crucial historical context in which the crime occurred, wherein the city was radically divided across racial lines. Rampant drug use and the growth of the upper middle class left certain neighborhoods crippled economically. Understanding the socioeconomic structure of the city provides crucial context to understanding the impact of the crime: a crime involving young black and Latino youths in a prosperous section of New York City where the victim was a member of the upper-class elite.
The crime itself is not of great consequence. As Burns acknowledges in the film: New York City had no shortage of rapes and murders. But it’s the where and who that evokes discussion. And for that, The Central Park Five is an incredible sociological text that addresses the ever prevalent ethnocentric nature of contemporary culture. As sound bites and images of Donald Trump and Edward Koch occupy the screen, the impact of white privilege and media control enters the discussion. Had the victim been assaulted in the confines of a Harlem ghetto – would a massive public uproar still occur? Or what if the victim were poor or of color? What if the assailants were white? Burns’ amazingly deconstructs and addresses the sociological consequences while remaining diligent about presenting the procedural elements of the case and trail itself. For Burns to have assembled two pictures – one an account of a social event and the second being a sociological deconstruction of the event itself – represents the sort of feat not often accomplished in documentary filmmaking. The Central Park Five works on both levels with profound conviction.