Produced by: Ken Burns
Ken Burns is one of the world’s most well-known documentarians. He’s given credit for crafting a style of utilizing still images in his films that is often replicated and now often overused. Burns, in my opinion, has a very dry style of filmmaking. His style of PBS documentary filmmaking is appealing to many doc fans and it does often offer a contrast to the subject he covers such as the film simply titled Jazz. Other films in his filmography include: The Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mark Twain. So, one could argue that as successful as he has been in the past he’s not exactly still on the cutting edge of filmmaking as he once was. With that said I was excited to see The Central Park Five because it felt like a different type of film for him so I hoped he was also stretching himself in style and storytelling.
First off the title of the film is a little frustrating as it appears to be playing off another tragic story documented in the Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries. I understand marketing but for a documentary filmmaker to even somewhat trade on someone else’s misery and on another documentary filmmakers’ work is kind of despicable. This film tells the story of five young boys that were accused and eventually convicted of raping and beating a woman in Central Park. The boys were sent to prison and each spent at least 6 years in prison and up to 13. They were finally released when a serial rapist admitted to committing the crime remarkably for no other reason than his conscience was getting the better of him. He believed these boys shouldn’t continue to be punished for something they didn’t do.
There’s no question that this story is fascinating and depressing. The film begins with a time capsule of the late 80’s New York demonstrating the unrest that was prevalent in the city. The night these kids were supposed to have committed the crime they did and still do admit to doing something called “wilding”. Wilding was a slang term for basically rampaging the city attacking innocent people and committing much more minor crimes. These mini riots of minority teens were common at the time. The film features archival news footage, interviews, and images that set the tone of New York City in 1989 and that demonstrate just how imperative it was to get these boys convicted. The documentary does wear its bias openly on its sleeve throughout its runtime. The way the title cards and narration sets up the detectives in charge is fairly blatant and slanted. I don’t disagree with the filmmakers in their bias, it’s just incumbent on a documentary filmmaker to tell every angle to the best of their ability or they are simply making a propaganda film.
The widescreen digital video here varies from solid TV quality video with good color and a clean image to rough and dirty archival video and that’s just film. When a documentary filmmaker is telling a period story where there is relevant video from the era available it must be used regardless of the level of degradation. I’ve seen films where the image was so poor the filmmaker just used the audio and that works too if it’s important to the story. Overall this film looks pretty good for a documentary.
The audio presentation is basic here, as we’d expect from a documentary but the important stuff, the dialogue, is clean enough and easy to hear. That’s really about all you can ask for in a documentary.
The Packaging and Bonus Material
There is a featurette with Burns and his daughter discussing how they came to this story and the reasons they felt it was important to make the film. There’s some good information here including working with the subject, deciding on the style of the film, and much more. There’s also a brief segment called After the Central Park Five where the five subjects attended film festivals to participate in Q&A’s. Seeing their reactions to the whole festival process was interesting. It’s all very brief but actually quality stuff.
The Central Park Five is absolutely a fascinating and tragic story that rises above any complaints I might have about the film’s execution.
Overall (Not an Average) 6.5/10
The Movie 7/10
The Video 8/10
The Audio 7/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 6.5/10
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10