The Central Park Five, a new film from award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, will air on witf on April 16 at 9:00pm. The film tells the story of the five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. Directed and produced by Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, the film chronicles the Central Park Jogger case, for the first time from the perspective of the five teenagers whose lives were upended by this miscarriage of justice.
On April 20, 1989, the body of a woman barely clinging to life was discovered in Central Park. Within days, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise confessed to her rape and beating after many hours of aggressive interrogation at the hands of seasoned homicide detectives. The police announced to a press hungry for sensational crime stories that the young men had been part of a gang of teenagers who were out “wilding,” assaulting joggers and bicyclists in Central Park that evening. The ensuing media frenzy was met with a public outcry for justice. The young men were tried as adults and convicted of rape, despite inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, DNA evidence that excluded them, and no eyewitness accounts that connected any of them to the victim. The five served their complete sentences, between 6 and 13 years, before another man, serial rapist Matias Reyes, admitted to the crime, and DNA testing supported his confession.
Set against the backdrop of a city beset by violence and facing deepening rifts between races and classes, The Central Park Five intertwines the stories of these five young men, the victim, police officers and prosecutors, and Matias Reyes, unraveling the forces behind the wrongful convictions. The film illuminates how law enforcement, social institutions and media undermined the very rights of the individuals they were designed to safeguard and protect.
“This is a radical departure for me as a filmmaker,” said Ken Burns. “Eschewing narration, bringing in many new stylistic elements — I think the intensity of the circumstances, and the political and tragic implications absolutely demanded that we implement an intensified discussion. What I think adds to our story is the humanity of the five young men who are at its center, especially because no one was willing to do that during the original media coverage and trial.”
“This case is a lens through which we can understand the ongoing fault-line of race in America,” said Sarah Burns, who also wrote The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, (Knopf, 2011). “These young men were convicted long before the trial, by a city blinded by fear and, equally, freighted by race. They were convicted because it was all too easy for people to see them as violent criminals simply because of the color of their skin.” “Ultimately The Central Park Five is about human dignity,” said David McMahon. “It is about five young men who lose their youth but maintain their dignity in the face of an horrific and unimaginable situation.” In 2002, based upon Matias Reyes’s confession, a judge vacated the original convictions of the Central Park Five. A year later, the men filed civil lawsuits against the City of New York, and the police officers and prosecutors who had worked toward their conviction. That lawsuit remains unresolved. Among those interviewed in the film are: The Central Park Five and members of their families; New York City Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins; journalists Jim Dwyer, Natalie Byfield and LynNell Hancock; the Reverend Calvin Butts; and historian Craig Steven Wilder. The Central Park Five: A film by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns; edited by Michael Levine; cinematography by Buddy Squires with Anthony Savini; original music by Doug Wamble.
Watch The Central Park Five on witf April 16 at 9:00pm.
Funding for the film was provided by The Atlantic Philanthropies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Better Angels Society and Bobby and Polly Stein, and PBS. Burns is also the director of such films as THE CIVIL WAR (1990), BASEBALL (1994), JAZZ (2001), THE WAR (2007) THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009), and THE DUST BOWL (2012) among many others.
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