This heartbreaking documentary covers a subject that, unfortunately, is surfacing more and more in this country, where (in many cases) DNA evidence shows wrongful convictions of people who have spent years in prison, or even been put to death.  The filmmakers (Ken Burns, David McMahon, and Sarah Burns) have carefully researched the background information of the case, which clearly indicates that—in one reporter’s view—the prosecutors, defense lawyers, and reporters did not pay attention to obvious discrepancies in the data used to convict five young adolescents.  The crime of a woman jogger beaten and raped in Central Park was widely reported at the time, and evoked highly emotional reactions in the public.

 The film begins by having the five men—now in their 30’s—tell the story of how they were coerced by the police departments and prosecutors in the interrogations, and given promises that if they would just confess, they could go home soon.  Their confessions were fabricated by officials to make them consistent with what was known of the case, and the boys, sometimes with their parents’ acquiescence, naively went along with it, simply because they were exhausted after hours and hours of questioning without rest or food, and just wanted to go home.  It is also clear that they did not think they would actually be convicted of a crime they did not commit.  

 One of the film’s strong points is having the case put in a social-historical-psychological perspective.  That is, these were just kids who could be pressured into doing something for a short-term goal (going home) without consideration of the long-term consequences (being convicted and sent to prison).   From a social standpoint, these were lower class black kids and the victim was a white, well-to-do woman.  A number of commentators brought out the frequency with which this particular contrast touches on the basic fears of white people toward males of color.  Historically, Americans have many times in such cases tended to form judgments before all the evidence is in.  Another point is made that the crime rate was high in New York City at the time, and police departments and city officials were being criticized for being soft on crime.  With all the pressure, they were desperate to apprehend and prosecute someone(s) as soon as possible.

 It is chilling to realize that the five men’s convictions were eventually (after they spent years in prison) overturned by a court only after a chance incident, which I will not reveal in this review.  

 Sadly, although the men have been released from prison, their civil suit against the city, police officers, and prosecutors is still unresolved.  This is after 23 years since the crime was committed.  Even more sadly, the loss of that many years of their lives still goes with them, and the convictions of felonies in their past makes it very difficult to get a job.  As one says, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget.”  No, I am sure they are reminded every day of what happened to them as kids and its implications for their adult lives.

The Central Park Five is a film that would be instructive for all of us to see and hear about the dangers of a rush to judgment.

Grade:  A  By Donna R. Copeland