The Cinefessions crew loves sharing their opinions on films, but not every movie can get the attention it deserves with a full review. Enter the Cinefessions’ Capsule Reviews. These capsule reviews cover five of the most important aspects of a film, which allow the crew to deliver their opinions on any movie clearly, decisively, and with brevity. These are not our full thoughts on any film, just a highlighting of the major pros and/or cons.
This is a documentary film, so I removed the category of “acting” and instead will talk about the cast of characters that were presented in The Central Park Five. Four of the five boys, now men, that were wrongly convicted of this crime are in this documentary, and the fourth one provides his voice for the film, but refused to be show on screen for whatever reason. I’ll be frank: what’s remarkable about these guys is how unremarkable they are. They could be just about anyone, from my best friend to the guy who drives past me on the way to work every morning. They’re just your average Joe’s who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That should terrify everyone, because if these people can be wrongfully convicted, so could I. The real problem these boys faced was being black and being teens at a time where New York City was essentially at war with young, black men. That sounds eerily familiar today, decades later, doesn’t it? It’s heartbreaking that the world was so willing to destroy the lives of these five men while simply dismissing, or avoiding, the evidence that said otherwise.
Story & Script
This is set up how you’d likely expect it to be. First we learn about the boys’ childhood. Where they grew up, the racial tension that was present at the time, and how they ended up in Central Park on the fateful night that a female jogger was attacked, brutally beaten, raped, and left for dead. Though there was little evidence that these boys were guilty, they were all given guilty verdicts in court, and sentenced to different stays in the local prison system. Only two of these boys were over 17 years old at the time of the rape. This is another great example of why taped confessions are not always as cut and dry as they may seem. The documentary spends a lot of time making this point, and does a good job of it. After we learn of their history, and the crime, we spend time with the boys as they go through the judicial system, from the initial arrests to the final verdicts. Finally, we learn of the new evidence that came to light – including the confession of a serial rapist who is the only one that could give details of the crime that actually fit the evidence found at the crime scene – and their eventual release from prison. It doesn’t really show what the men are doing now, though, and that ends up being a bigger problem than I expected.
Ken Burns is an all-star in the documentary game, specifically known for his work on the PBS documentaries Baseball and Prohibition and The Dust Bowl. These are of varying degrees of entertaining, but they’re always focused on fact over glitz or glamour. The same can be said with The Central Park Five, and that is also its downfall. Because Burns focuses more on the facts than on the humans, there is a disconnect with the emotion of the film. I liked these guys well enough, and felt bad for them, but that’s about it. I want to know how they’ve overcome this hardship, if they have, and what they’re doing to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else in the future, if they’re doing anything like that. Otherwise, the talking head approach is fine. There is little to discuss in terms of innovative, or interesting filmmaking techniques as Burns keeps everything pretty simple.
It feels like there is something missing in the human element of The Central Park Five. There has to be more to these men than just this. I would have loved to learn more about them to make them more human, and thus, more relatable, which would give the viewer a stronger emotional connection. That’s what’s really missing here. I like these guys, but they’re forgettable because Burns gives us nothing that makes one really stand out from another.
I don’t see myself watching this again.
I understand that it is very easy to look back on things like this with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, but it doesn’t make this travesty of justice any less disgusting. These boys are victims of racial tension of their time, and their lives have been forever changed because of a justice system that refused to look at all the evidence and put it together logically. I’ve been reading up a good deal lately on the wrongfully accused, and it’s a fascinating and heartbreaking topic. Not only is the victim’s live over, but the justice system them goes on to ruin the lives of other innocent people because it’s unwilling to admit that it may have gotten it wrong in the first place. The Central Park Five tells an interesting story, and one that must be heard, but there is a disconnect of emotion that makes the story better than the documentary about the story.