Ken Burns made his name depicting America through sweeping, lavishly detailed documentaries about its defining moments and institutions. His new film — co-directed by Burns’ daughter Sarah and her husband, David McMahon — seems far narrower in scale and scope. It zeroes in on a single incident, the notorious 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park, and its aftermath. But The Central Park Five, Burns’ first theatrically released doc since 1985, is no less a snapshot of the country. The outcry that greeted the crime and the subsequent wrongful imprisonment of five black and Latino teenagers become vehicles for an examination of not just the specific circumstances of late-’80s NYC, but broader questions of justice, racial tension and media complicity.
The filmmakers approach the events from multiple perspectives, letting the story unfold through archival footage commented on by historians, social psychologists, politicians and, most movingly, the accused men themselves. What emerges is a picture of five young boys caught at the crossroads of a crime-weary city, beleaguered politicians and police (not to mention the always-odious Donald Trump) and a lurid tabloid press, all feeding on the fear and prejudices of the public. The story is enthralling, enraging and ultimately moving, though the lingering emotion is one of disparities left unresolved.