A crash course in media sensationalism, political opportunism and a flawed justice system, Ken Burns' documentary "The Central Park Five" revisits the case of five Harlem teenagers wrongfully convicted of the 1989 rape of a female jogger in Central Park. It's a familiar story -- not just this specific one, but the larger one as well -- and Burns tells it faithfully and with good intentions.
Based on a book by Burns' daughter, Sarah (who codirected with her husband, David McMahon), "The Central Park Five" focuses on the larger forces that railroaded the five -- Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray (who granted audio interviews only), Korey Wise and Raymond Santana, all black or Hispanic -- into lengthy prison sentences. Police detectives coaxed false confessions, the city's poisonous racial atmosphere turned public opinion against the suspects and one juror -- in a shocking on-screen admission -- voted against his conscience just to end the grueling deliberations.
Years later, a convicted killer named Matias Reyes confessed to the rape, and DNA evidence backed his claim. The sentences of the five were vacated in 2002. Neither police nor law enforcement officials would speak for the film (the five have a lawsuit pending against the city), so the story essentially ends here.
But this is where the untold stories would seem to begin. Many New Yorkers know the outlines of the case but not what happened to the five afterward: their struggles to re-enter society, their shared stigma, the shattered personal relationships. Some of these are included -- McCray's inability to forgive his ineffectual father is heartbreaking -- but only briefly. "The Central Park Five" brings the big picture into focus, but the personal details tend to fade into the background.
PLOT Ken Burns' documentary focuses on the wrongful convictions of five Harlem teenagers in the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park. Unrated (language, adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE A skillfully told and important story, though less factual blow-by-blow and more time spent with the five would have been more compelling.