If you don't come away from 'The Central Park Five' seething with anger then I'd be startled to say the least. Sometimes our justice system works, and sometimes it doesn't. To call this a miscarriage of justice seems to be putting it lightly. This was an all-out assault on fairness and dignity. An absolutely disgusting example of how the justice system can be so easily bent to reinforce vicious stereotypes. It's an example of how uncaring and how callous we can be as a public, especially when fueled by rampant media coverage. This story makes me personally ashamed, because I'm sure that I would've felt the exact same way as the masses if I had lived in New York during this tumultuous time.
Ken Burns is a master documentary filmmaker. He sets the scene perfectly here. We open on New York in the late '80s. Racial tensions are at an all-time high. New York is facing its most violent time on record. Multiple murders are committed every day. Then we get to the story of the Central Park jogger. The fuse had been getting shorter and shorter as violence in the city escalated. When a white woman was found raped and beaten within an inch of her life, in the middle of Central Park, the city went ballistic. Once it was discovered that a group of black and Latino teenagers may have been to blame, all hell broke loose.
The case of 'The Central Park Five' is a perfect example of the old adage, "Truth is stranger than fiction." As you hear the alleged perpetrators recount what happened that fateful night, it's hard not to imagine this as a gritty crime/courtroom drama.
Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Antron McCray (voice only) were young teenagers in 1989. They lived in the heart of New York. The five of them get together on this documentary to recollect about what really happened, how the cops viciously railroaded them into giving up phony confessions, and how they ultimately spent much of their young lives in prison for a crime none of them had anything to do with.
These young men would eventually become the most hated people in New York. That night they joined up with a group of teenagers who were hell-bent on causing mayhem in Central Park. The media latched onto the term "wilding" to describe what the group, which they nicknamed "Wolf Pack," were up to. The group of kids assaulted bikers and a homeless man in the park. Unbeknownst to them, around the same time, a woman was getting raped at another area in the park. When the woman was found, the police tracked down some of the kids involved in the mischievous rampage the night before and pinned the crime on them.
What followed was a perfect storm of police cruelty, district attorney zealotry, defense lawyer ineptitude, media fanaticism, and a public frothing at the chance to blame a group of black kids for attacking a defenseless white woman. Like a specifically tuned movie script, the boys were thrust into a spiral of injustice that they'd never recover from. The police coerced confessions from impressionable and frightened youngsters. They pitted them against each other in a devious, underhanded ploy to create a fictional scenario in which they could say these kids committed this heinous act.
Even though there was no matching DNA, and even though none of the "confessions" given by the five matched up, they were still convicted and sent to prison. The group served between six and 13 years in prison before they were exonerated by new evidence and a real confession from the man who committed the crime.
'The Central Park Five' serves as a warning to us as a public. It shows how an out-of-control media cycle can damn someone before they're even put on trial. In this case these five teenagers weren't innocent until proven guilty. Instead, it was quite the opposite. The public had made up their mind. Latent racism bubbled up and took over. The entire city rose up to condemn the group without any real evidence. As former mayor David Dinkins puts it, "It was a damn shame." Indeed it was.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a PBS release. It comes on a 50GB Blu-ray Disc. It's packaged in a standard keepcase and is labeled as being a Region A release.
As is to be expected with a documentary of this nature, there are a wide variety of sources that the filmmakers pull from. Some of the source is high-def interviews filmed recently, other footage is from early '90s and late '80s news footage, and yet other footage is culled from grainy surveillance video taken during the confessions. It's a hodgepodge of source material.
Presented in 1080i, 'The Central Park Five' transfer does extremely well when it focuses on the newly filmed interviews. These interviews are full of detail. The conversational close-ups feature pores, individual facial hair, and age lines. It's a realistic and natural portrayal of the human face.
The transfer does the best it can with the various sources that are introduced. Old video tape from the confessions plays like worn out VHS. Old new footage looks just like you'd expect old news footage to look. There are some recently filmed transition scenes, like the inside of interrogation rooms, the outside of prison walls, and nighttime in Central Park. Those scenes are all crystalline, except for the nighttime scenes which harbor a little more digital noise than they should.
The difficulty is how do you grade a movie that depends on using so many sources that simply won't transfer well to high definition? In the end the recently filmed stuff looks as good as one would expect and because of that, 'The Central Park Five' receives above average marks.
There are two English listening options to choose from here. You can choose a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix, or you can choose an LPCM 2.0 stereo mix. It's an interesting choice. Do you go with the lossy surround sound, or the lossless stereo?
I listened to both and must say that the added surround mix doesn't provide much depth. Since this is a documentary about 90-percent of the sound is focused front and center. Narration and interviews come directly from the center channel. I was, however, impressed with the amount of bass produced during with the hip-hop soundtrack, along with some of the more intense parts of the movie.
The lossless stereo option provided a very well-produced sound scape up front. Voices were always clear. Directionality worked well when it was needed, by placing voices and sound effects in the speaker that made the most sense. Clarity was exceptional. For a documentary, either of these tracks would be a satisfying experience.
'The Central Park Five' is a powerful documentary that makes you question yourself. How would you have acted, or how did you act, when this trial was going on? Did mob mentality grab you and drag you along? What responsibility does the press have in remaining unbiased? Do we allow our police to use these kinds of derisive tactics? There are so many societal questions and concerns raised by 'The Central Park Five' that it's hard to innumerate them all. These kids were railroaded into prison and served multiple years for something they didn't do. It's shameful, but deep down, this documentary contains a message of hope. Maybe if Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Antron McCray tell their story, it might help save an innocent life in the future. This documentary is recommended.