TERRY GROSS, HOST:
It's not unusual to have a new documentary film by Ken Burns televised by PBS, but "The Central Park Five," which is broadcast tonight in primetime, is different in several respects. One is that it comes to public television after premiering in theaters last year and another is that it's made in collaboration with Burns' daughter Sarah. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Ken Burns has said that no matter what subjects he tackles in his documentaries, whether it's baseball or jazz, Mark Twain or the Civil War, they always seem to boil down to two things: race and place. That's certainly true of his latest work, "The Central Park Five," which tells of the violent assault and rape of a female jogger in 1989.
The place was New York City and because of citywide racial tensions at the time, the story was seized upon by New York tabloids and national TV newscasts alike. The victim was white and the five teenagers accused of brutalizing her were black and Latino. It made for frenzied, heated news coverage.
And, as the late Ed Koch, former mayor of New York explains, both race and place were key factors in the attention this case received from the media.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Some of the young men told police they were just out wilding.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wilding is a word you won't find in Webster's.
TOM BROKAW: Wilding. New York City police say that's new teenage slang for rampaging in wolf packs, attacking people just for the fun of it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The district attorney's office says that the teenagers have confessed. A spokesman said some of those confessions are on videotape.
MAYOR ED KOCH: A woman, jogging, and Central Park. Central Park was holy. If it had happened anyplace else other than Central Park it would been terrible but it would not have been as terrible. It was, for everybody, not just me, the crime of the century.
BIANCULLI: "The Central Park Five" is written, produced, and directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and David McMahon. McMahon served as a producer on other Burns documentaries: "Baseball," "The War," and "The National Parks," but this is the first film credit for Sarah Burns. She did, however, write the 2011 nonfiction book on which this film is based, so she more than earned her way into the family business.
The approach in "Central Park Five" is different than the usual Ken Burns film. There's no narration. The story just unfolds, mostly chronologically. And there are no actors providing voices or portraying historical figures, just the people themselves either in vintage footage or fresh interviews. It has more in common with an Errol Morris film like "The Thin Blue Line" than it does with "The Civil War" or "Jazz," but it's just as detailed and thorough in its approach as those major miniseries.
"Central Park Five" by now is anything but a whodunit, because the actual rapist and attacker eventually stepped forward and confessed and DNA samples from the crime scene proved a perfect match. But that didn't happen until five teenage boys were convicted of the crime and spent seven years in prison. They claim to have been coerced into giving false confessions, and the documentary makes a compelling case in their behalf.
Four of the five exonerated teens appear and are interviewed on camera. The fifth, Antron McCray, chose to participate only in voiceover. New York City prosecutors and police chose not to appear or participate at all. However, the city did try to demand - unsuccessfully - that the filmmakers release outtakes of their interviews as possible evidence in the ongoing civil trial brought by the former defendants.
"The Central Park Five" is a strong, vivid, involving documentary. The story it tells is a wrenching one, but it never succumbs to hyperbole or sensationalism. In fact, the most powerful moments in this documentary are the quietest ones: when one of the now-grown men thinking back on his lost youth sheds a silent tear. Or when, at the end of this two-hour movie, these ex-convicts are photographed individually standing as free men on the streets and subway platforms of New York City.
People around them are rushing by in a blur, but they're just standing there, completely still, somehow disconnected from the world around them. Without saying a word, those images speak volumes.
GROSS: "The Central Park Five" airs tonight on PBS. David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.