Trailer for Ken Burns' The Central Park Five
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Now That's a Different Kind of Americana: Trailer for Ken Burns' The Central Park Five

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Trailers | October 23, 2012 | Comments ()


In 1989 New York City was still caught in the grip of the worst wave of violent crime in its history. Its waning in the years that followed has variously been attributed to the decline in the crack epidemic, the demographic consequences of abortion, an increase in the aggression of policing, and other theories that will be argued about forever. Of course the real reason for the decline is the debut of "Law and Order" in 1990. Once Lenny was on the case, murder was on its way out of New York City.

A particularly brutal rape in the spring of 1989 though inflamed the city. A 29 year old woman, jogging in Central Park, was viciously assaulted and beaten so terribly that she was given little change of surviving, let alone making a meaningful recovery.

In a series of events reminiscent of the railroading of the West Memphis Three, five fifteen year old boys were charged with the crime. No physical evidence tied them to the crime. Only their confessions damned them, those of course obtained after dozens of hours of intimidation and interrogation, and which were consistent neither with each other or the actual facts of the crime. At least Nancy Grace wasn't on the air then. New York City was teetering so close to the edge that her shrill prompting might have succeeded in tipping the seething city into a mob that wreaked immediate justice.

Years later, confession by another inmate (confirmed by DNA testing) exonerated the five. It's the sort of terrible series of events that makes for a great documentary, and it looks like we might just get one:

This looks like a fantastic story, and well done to boot. But my first instinct was to wonder at Ken Burns' involvement. In his storied career touching on baseball, the Civil War, jazz, prohibition, and World War II, he had made himself a cottage industry of using voiceovers and pan-and-scan on slices of old Americana. Brutal rape and racially charged wrongful convictions just does not seem like the logical next project. It's great to see someone with real talent break so far outside of their established comfort zone.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • mike d

    Saw it this week in Chicago (Chicago Film Festival). It's an incredibly informative, amazing and eye-opening story. Would love a full review from Pajiba!

  • Slash

    It's about damn time somebody addressed this (in a documentary). Maybe the worst part is, if the NYC cops had been at all competent, the guy who did it wouldn't have been able to do it to anyone else. But he did, apparently.

  • JenVegas

    Ugh. This. I remember this. I was 13 growing up in Queens. This was EVERYWHERE. No one was safe, every group of kids walking down the street was a "wilding" waiting to happen. I live in Chicago now, have been here for 13 years. There are way more ACTUAL "wildings" happening - groups of teens mugging folks for phones, flashmobbing stores to shoplift and wreck havoc. I wonder if Ken is going to make a documentary about this summer in Chicago in 20 years.

  • Guest

    It even made waves in Canada. Headlines, water-cooler, you name it. Vivid memories of all the coverage and pearl-clutching. The racial element, of course, was the rocket fuel.

  • Mr. West

    I think that Burns' choice to do this is not so radical a departure as Rowles thinks. It like "Baseball" and "The War" deals with the human condition, if anything it makes all the sense in the world for Burns to do this.

  • Salieri2

    Agreed, but I'd go further: not only the human condition, but the American condition. It's not "oldness" that makes it Americana, it's Americanness . Americanitude? That this is (relatively) modern makes it no less a marker of our unique national identity.

    Whose comfort zone are we talking about? I'm certainly going to be uncomfortable watching this. It's as brutal on an individual level as the Civil War, without the historical remove of a century and a half. But that's my discomfort: Burns is in his wheelhouse.

  • ,

    "Historical remove"

    I happened to be in a cemetery on Sunday, reading the headstones, and noted at least one person buried there who was born in the 1850s and died in 1933. If you were 5 in 1933, that would make you 84 today. There are lots of 84-year-olds around. IOW, there are plenty of people alive today who probably knew people who were alive during the Civil War. It seems an eternity ago but it really wasn't all that long.

  • Mr.West

    Forgive me, I made a mistake. Mr. Wilson was the author of the above article. And yet, my sentiment still stands.

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