AFI Fest 2012
By Don Simpson | November 29, 2012
Directors: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
In 1989, one Latino and four black teenagers — Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise — from Harlem were accused (and then convicted) of raping a white woman in Central Park. After spending six to 13 years in prison, a serial rapist confessed to committing the crime, eventually leading to the overturning of their convictions.
We are all quite familiar with Ken Burns’ tried and true documentary technique of panning and scanning archival photos teamed with voiceover narration. It is a filmmaking approach that often seems overly dry and scholarly in this confrontational age of docu-tainment directors such as Michael Moore and Errol Morris. Burns’ approach to The Central Park Five, however, is much different. Working with co-directors Sarah Burns (Ken Burns’ daughter) and David McMahon (Sarah Burns’ husband), Ken Burns relies upon contemporary talking-head interviews with the previously convicted men, as well as journalists, activists and politicians (including former New York mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins); occasionally utilizing archival video footage (including the videotaped confessions of the five teens) to add another level of truth to the subject. Admittedly, this is still a very sterile approach to a fact-heavy, non-fiction film; nonetheless, The Central Park Five is still quite emotionally moving due to the disturbing nature of the film’s content.
Stemming from Sarah Burns’ book The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, this documentary is a grim portrait of class and racial biases accentuated by an over-zealous police force and a horribly broken judicial system. This is an embarrassing example of racial profiling that occurred all too recently in the history of the United States.