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TIFF Day 4 – The Central Park Five

Read all our TIFF 2012 coverage here.

It does matter if you’re black or white – ★★★★★

[TIFF listing]

Directors: Ken Burns, David McMahon, Sarah Burns  //  Country: USA  //  Year: 2012  //  Language: English  //  Runtime: 119 minutes 

Ken Burns is best-known as a history documentary-maker and the man who pioneered the method of slowly zooming in on or panning across a photograph or illustration in order to create a sense of movement. For his latest film he teams up with his daughter Sarah and producer/director David McMahon to share the sensational story of a miscarriage of justice which saw five male teenagers – from black and Hispanic communities in harlem – serve between six and 13 years in prison for the alleged rape of a white woman in New York’s Central Park.

On the evening of April 19, 1989 a young investment banker was jogging in Central Park when she was raped and beaten to within an inch of her life. A gang of teens were arrested for trouble-making in the park that night, but were then kept in custody for the next 24 hours as they became suspects in the rape case. Despite a lack of any DNA evidence, inconsistent “confessions” and an uneven timeline, a court found all five boys guilty, sending them to prison. What can only be described as a media witch-hunt followed, fueling the New York establishment’s need for a quick and tidy conviction.

In 2002, a chance encounter by one of the men with  Matias Reyes, the actual perpetrator of the crime and a serial rapist who should have been a logical suspect anyway, causes him to make a confession, exonerating all five men.

The story of the Central Park Five may shock audiences who thought that the most scandalously coerced false confessions came in the case of the West Memphis Three. In that case all that was needed to put three men in prison – one of them on a death sentence – was a single confession from one of the suspects, Jessie Misskelley Jr. In the case of the “Central Park Jogger” the police somehow managed to convince four of the five teenagers to implicate each other on video-tape, eventually sending them all to prison.

In that pre-internet age, the word of the New York Post and local TV news affiliates was gospel, so when they started throwing around language of monsters and sociopaths, the baying public was only happy to pin the crime on them and isolate their families and supporters. The comparison to an era of racial tensions at the turn of the 20th century and the life and death of Emmett Till are explored and put into context alongside the case. The fact that an influential man like Donald Trump would take out full page newspaper ads pushing for the death penalty for the accused teens shows not just how big the case was, but also how uninformed of the facts the public were.

Burns (x2) and McMahon speak to journalists, a trial jury member and all five convicted men, but because a 2003 lawsuit against the prosecutors is still ongoing, none of the detectives or state prosecutors opted to speak to them.  A convenient excuse you imagine.

With the telling of the story faultless, it really is hard to say anything bad about this documentary. The pacing is perfect from start to finish, with suitable levels of tension and shock present as a continuous sense of injustice permeates through the film along with an unshakeable disbelief that something like this could ever have happened.

Read all our TIFF 2012 coverage here.

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Nigel

Nigel loves stupid films almost as much as he likes clever films. He'll watch anything but is usually drawn to documentaries, North American independent films, Irish cinema and gung-ho, balls-to-the-walls Hollywood blockbusters. Here's what he's been watching.