Of all the cruelties on display in “The Central Park Five,’’ one of the cruelest is set in a classroom. The film — a scrupulous, singeing documentary by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and her husband, David McMahon — reconstructs the notorious series of events that occurred in the spring of 1989 after a young investment banker was beaten and raped while running one night in Central Park. The New York Police Department managed to round up a handful of teenage suspects from Harlem — four black and one Puerto Rican; the victim was a white woman — and pin the crime on them.
The moment in the classroom involves one of the suspects, Korey Wise. By the time it arrives, we know that each of the boys has confessed to the crime and that the confessions were made under duress and were false. We know this because the suspects, now men in their 30s, have separately relived the whole experience for us. We know this because the manner in which the film revives the case leaves little doubt of their innocence, at least in the rape case. They each were in the park that night, in a group of 30 or so boys, some of whom were troublemakers. But they were in an area of the park some distance from where Trisha Meili, the runner, was assaulted. We know this because the man who actually committed the crime came forward a few years ago; and DNA testing confirmed his claim.
The eldest of the five suspects is Wise. At 16, with his hair cut into a high-top fade, he sits at a desk in the front row of a functioning classroom. The district attorney’s office is videotaping its interrogation of him. He’s been given a can of Pepsi and is the only person in the frame. On the other side of the camera sits one of the lead attorneys, a woman named Elizabeth Lederer, who informs him of his rights and eventually hands him a photograph of the victim. Initially, it’s unclear what part of the body he’s being shown (I had to see the film twice to make out that it was her severely bruised head).
Wise holds the photo, looks it over, and resumes affirming Lederer’s line of inquiry (Is this the woman you saw? Is that how she looked when you saw her?). Between yeses, something terrible happens. Wise leans in toward the picture and gives it a serious stare. He then produces the most adult exhalation I’ve heard a 16-year-old expel. This is what he’d confessed to doing that night in the park? This? It’s an awful enough image when the perpetrator is someone else. It’s a living nightmare when you’ve led authorities to believe that one of the perpetrators is you.
Wise and three of the five others said that they had been doing all that yessing because they thought it would get them out of trouble. But holding proof of their alleged brutality takes Wise’s breath away. For the remainder of the interrogation, even though he’s still saying yes — kind of — the words issue from him garbled and half-formed. All that you imagine he’s thinking is “No, no, no, no.’’
The full scope of a social tragedy — the rape and assault; the railroading of five innocent suspects; the media’s failure to ask harder questions of the police department and justice system — crystallizes in his reaction to that picture. An adult Wise tells the filmmakers that he felt 12 in that moment. But it also feels like a young man’s last adolescent breath.
For about 70 minutes, this is bravura moviemaking. McMahon and the Burnses conjure the only-in-New York cultural and socioeconomic climate that could produce a perfect storm of a scandal: rampant crime, the AIDS and crack epidemics, racial tensions, urban decay, vast disenfranchisement, the local hot air of Donald Trump and Al Sharpton, hip-hop’s quiet drift from housing projects to mainstream America, the fear and endangerment of black men. The filmmakers — along with the reporters, sociologists, and community leaders who sit before the filmmakers’ cameras — explain the city at the end of the 1980s and how that specific urban climate evokes, say, the Jim Crow South.
The so-called Central Park Five — Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusuf Salaam, and Antron McCray (McCray is heard but declined to appear on camera) — became self-conscripted scapegoats for the epic dysfunction of a city in particular and a country in general. Four of the five were done in by their taped false confessions.
What’s amazing about listening to them speak now, often through tears, is the absence of bitterness. How they came to be exonerated in 2002 sounds like something out of Alexandre Dumas or Victor Hugo. The dramatic thriller fashioned from this tinderbox and its wealth of tender memories is morally proportioned. The filmmakers never lose site of either set of victims — neither the young men nor the jogger — and leave you no choice but to hold in contempt the media, the district attorney’s office, and the NYPD.
If the second hour or so isn’t as strong as the first, it’s because the filmmaking fails to rise to the injustice that’s befallen its subjects since their exoneration. It can’t, really. The circumstances of the crime — each of the crimes — are appalling. But they’re appalling in the ways that have provided the makings for many great books and movies.
Wise, Santana, Richardson, Salaam, and McCray filed a federal lawsuit against the City of New York in 2003. In the height of irony, lawyers for the city have recently subpoenaed the Burnses’ and McMahon’s unused interviews and footage. (The detectives and prosecutors involved with the case declined to participate in the film.) What’s currently happening with the five men doesn’t play to Ken Burns’s strengths as an architect of the past. (Sarah Burns documented the story in a 2011 nonfiction book.)
The Burnses and McMahon turn the first part of the movie into a grand tragedy. Ken Burns is a dryly dramatic historian and in that history is veiled advocacy — for the ecology, for equality, for a popular resurrection of jazz. He is an archive detective. He’s not a lobbyist, editorialist, or persecutor of the errant and the venal. He’s not Errol Morris.
You’re left just as desperate for a movie about the five’s nine-year wait for a civil trial or settlement. Building a film from the details of how this particular injustice was executed requires rigorousness. It’s not an easy achievement, but perhaps it’s simpler than documenting the pursuit of justice as it happens. In this case, it’s untidy, uncertain, and seemingly unattainable. It’d be a lifelong pursuit.