The Central Park Five is a story about how the wrong story got told. Five black and Hispanic teenagers recount how they were unfairly collared and jailed for years in the 1989 rape and near-murder of a white investment banker known ever after as “the Central Park Jogger.” We learn that a confession by serial rapist Matias Reyes led to the Five’s exoneration in 2002. But by then, most of the movie—like their lives—has been taken up by the ordeal.
The Central Park saga was seemingly conjured by collective urban nightmares steeped in crime, class bias, and racial tumult. Outraged media coverage, abetted by politicians, police, and prosecution, hyped the brutal incident as a new low in degeneracy. During a night of so-called “wilding,” “packs” of teens terrorized their way through the sanctified Manhattan park like latter-day droogs. “Central Park Jogger” entered a racial litany alongside Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, the place names all like urban battlefields.
The movie’s title shifts the focus from the Jogger to the Five. Instead of spotlighting the woman who wrote I Am the Central Park Jogger in 2004, the filmmakers give the stand to the men rounded up as teens, held overnight, and encouraged into bewilderingly detailed confessions later deemed false: Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, and (via audio only) Antron McCray.
“I started focusing on the story in 2003,” says Sarah Burns. “I spent the summer interning for a pair of civil rights lawyers, and one of them was beginning to work on the civil rights case” filed by the exonerated.
She wrote a book in 2011 (building on her undergraduate thesis on the topic) but grew up knowing nothing of the incident, even as a frequent visitor to the city from New Hampshire when her famous father, Ken Burns, was editing The Civil War. Like so many in this ever-churning city, Sarah, who co-directed with Ken and her husband, David McMahon, was a newcomer reunderstanding its history for herself. McMahon, raised way upstate, reflects another typical perspective: the paranoid outsider. “My parents would go to great lengths to avoid driving into New York City in case the car broke down. We would actually drive to Bridgeport and take a ferry to visit friends in Long Island.”
The film also features Ed Koch (the filmmakers’ first interview), David Dinkins, and historian Craig Steven Wilder, with framing by New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer, a Newsday reporter at the time of the attack and author of a book on false confessions. Filmmaking and research duties were shared among McMahon (a frequent producer with Ken) and the Burnses. Ken—whose first documentary was about the Brooklyn Bridge—would also “call in on the road, driving from one place to another, to say, ‘I just thought of this’ and we’d all wrestle with it,” recalls McMahon.
Missing from their collaboration, however, are the prosecutors and police made (in)famous by the case—though not for lack of trying, say McMahon and Sarah. That puts a dent in the film’s efficacy as a complete account. (Sarah’s book also caught some criticism for its blind spots.) And city lawyers in the civil case who have filed subpoenas for filmmaking materials call the film more activism than journalism.
What’s certain is that the Central Park Jogger story is at once a subject and an ongoing symptom: Talking about it and making a documentary about it adds another story, another bias, to the palimpsest. In focusing on the Five, the victim necessarily falls to one side; in retelling a received narrative of 1980s New York as “under siege,” the documentary reinforces old divisions and Manhattan-centric assumptions about which New Yorkers are New Yorkers. (Cf. Hurricane Sandy coverage and aid treatment of many in the “outer boroughs.”) One detail in the film demonstrates the somewhat privileged attention this horrible incident received: That same year, a woman was raped and tossed off a roof in the Bronx, but without garnering anywhere near the same attention.
Even within the exoneration project of the Central Park Five, you can discern differences across racial lines in the apparent consensus. Koch harbors little regret about feeding the frenzy over the assault; Wilder comes to the stunningly grim conclusion that “what we really need to realize is we’re not really good people. And we’re often not.”
As for the Five, Sarah describes the process as “cathartic” for them. Santana recalls the first time he saw it as “tough.” Today, he works for a health care union and speaks on behalf of the Innocence Project. “As a city, we have made great strides and a lot of progress,” he says, ironically a practiced spokesman by now. “But when it comes to race and a class of people, as far as financially and those we consider poor. . . .”
As the civil rights case continues, so does this story continue beyond the boundaries of the movie. Santana for one holds on to another, very New York kind of sentiment: “I still live in the old neighborhood because I feel I have earned this spot as a New Yorker. So I’m not going to leave.”