Ken Burns tends to make masterful but rather deliberately paced documentaries; long contemplative series about the Civil War, or baseball, or National Parks.
Tuesday night he premiered a very different kind of documentary on PBS, an impassioned and outraged look at a high profile crime of the 1980’s.
Much of the country was consumed with the horrendous story of a 28-year-old jogger who was attacked, raped, and left for dead in Central Park.
The fact that the victim was white and the suspects young black and Hispanic males from Harlem only fanned the flames of media attention.
The five suspects were part of a much larger group of between 20 and 25 guys who had been harassing a lot of park visitors that particular night, an activity someone dubbed “wilding.” After separate, all-night interrogations, most of them confessed to the crime, and implicated the others. They were subsequently convicted and all but one served seven years in prison. The fifth served 13 years.
In his latest documentary, “The Central Park Five,” director Ken Burns revisits the case step by step to reveal what an utter charade the prosecution was.
Years later, all those accused were exonerated – their confessions were coerced – and the real rapist was uncovered, but it was only after most of them had already served their time behind bars. Sure, their reputations were repaired but their lives had been altered irrevocably.
Like the case of the West Memphis Three, The Central Park Five is another infuriating example of a miscarriage of justice. As one historian puts it in the film:
“I want us to remember what happened that day and be horrified by ourselves.”