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Why ‘Central Park Five,’ Airing on PBS Tonight, Is the Most Important Documentary of Ken Burns’ Career

Why 'Central Park Five,' Airing on PBS Tonight, Is the Most Important Documentary of Ken Burns' Career

Editor’s note: A version of this review originally ran when “The Central Park Fiveopened in theaters last fall. The film premieres on PBS this evening.

One of the few documentarians whose name has solidified into a brand, Ken Burns’ style has even birthed its own noun: “The Ken Burns Effect” describes that overly familiar technique of zooming and panning across closeups of still images that Burns repeatedly uses in his historical documentaries. There’s a reason that Burns’ filmmaking tool has gained nearly as much prominence as the movies he uses it in: While impeccably researched and often stunningly comprehensive in their scholarly overviews of major historical events, Burns’ movies generally lack both immediacy or strong arguments about their subjects. Devoid of drama, a Burns PBS documentary takes a patient, measured approach to surveying lengthy historical periods that’s embodied by the effect bearing his name.  

“The Central Park Five” provides a welcome exception to the usual Burns routine. Part of its distinction unquestionably comes from the other names associated with the project: Burns co-directed the movie with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon; the subject matter is partly derived from Sarah Burns’ book “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding,” released last year. Nevertheless, Ken Burns is both credited as one of the directors and has been front and center promoting its release, leaving no doubt that he retains a fair amount of authorship over the material. For that reason, its polemical content stands out in his oeuvre and deserves recognition as his most important feature-length achievement.

The movie casts a judgmental eye at the New York City Police Department and the city’s prosecutorial system that led five Harlem teenagers to spend their young adulthood behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit. The convictions were the result of the infamous 1989 case of “The Central Park Jogger,” when a white woman in her twenties (later revealed to be Trisha Meili) was attacked during a late night jog, raped and left in a debilitating coma.

The teens, who ranged in age from 14 to 16, faced the NYPD’s Machiavellian interrogation techniques that goaded them to confess to the attack in the hopes that they might face a lenient judgement. Instead, they wound up spending years in jail, only to become exonerated in 2002 when Matias Reyes confessed to acting solo in the crime. Burns and his co-directors use contemporary interviews with the previously convicted men and others familiar with the case alongside plentiful archival footage, including the videotaped confessions of the terrified teens, to make the unequivocal case against a broken judicial process steeped in class and race biases that destroyed lives.

READ MORE: ‘The Central Park 5’ On Criticwire

Needless to say, you’re unlikely to find such extreme indictments in “The Dust Bowl,” Burns’ other recent achievement, a two-part history of the infamous drought and widespread suffering that afflicted America’s lower class during the Great Depression. “Dust Bowl,” which premiered on PBS last fall, contains interviews with 26 survivors of the era. By most indications (I have only watched some of it), “Dust Bowl” automatically assumes a place in the pantheon of first-rate scholarship that defines Burns’ PBS work. But while the TV movie may offer a complex perspective on history, it lacks the power to change it.

“Central Park Five” sets out to do exactly that. In addition to providing a comprehensive, documented evidence that the eponymous suspects were forced into providing the unreliable testimony that led to their incarceration, the movie lays bear the grotesque biases of early nineties American society, unveiling a situation far more backward than a lot of people remember it. Newspaper headlines declare that the accused engaged in “wilding,” a term confounding for its racist implications insofar as it makes generalizations about the gang behaviors of Harlem teens. The footage of protests against the convictions, marked by a portly Al Sharpton, would not look out of place in a documentary about the early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement. By magnifying how a supposedly progressive society remained tethered to old world biases even in the final decade of the twentieth century, “Central Park 5” implies that such issues continue to haunt the justice system today, whether or not we can see them in the moment.

With an editing approach that seamlessly blends past and present, “Central Park Five” contains a fluid, engaging storytelling that does away with the dry voiceover commentary and theatrical music choices that typically account for the narrative flow of most Burns films. Instead, the testimonies of the men who were jailed for the crime create a startling ongoing contrast to the open-and-shut nature of the proceedings. With the exception of the one subject who chose not to reveal his face on camera, their pained expressions transform “Central Park Five” into a work of anger that still reverberates today.  

The movie validates emotions that the Central Park Five have struggled previously to express in a 2003 civil suit in which the five men have asked for $50 million each to compensate for the misconduct on the part of various lawmen — none of whom agreed to appear in the documentary. If the perspective of “Central Park Five” is slanted — and it is, necessarily so — nobody made any effort to counter its arguments on camera. As a result, the documentary advocates for rectifying the damage done against its subjects, and has garnered enough attention that city officials demanded the filmmakers provide them with full documentation of the interviews. Citing journalistic privileges, the trio resisted a subpoena, forcing a battle nearly forgotten by history back into the limelight. It wasn’t a vain attempt: In February, a federal court judge denied the city’s request, ensuring that the movie will continue to galvanize viewers rather than suffer from the distractions of judicial b. At under two hours, “Central Park Five” might be Burns’ shortest directorial credit in years. Its real ending hasn’t been written yet.

Criticwire grade: A-

Watch Ken Burns discuss his refusal to hand over video from “Central Park 5” to the NYPD below:

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