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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 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Trailers | October 23, 2012 |

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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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.