Opening this past weekend was Ken Burns’ The Central Park Five, a film about five young boys in Harlem, NY wrongly convicted of brutally beating, raping, and leaving a jogger for dead in Central Park. Frighteningly, this film reminds us of what New York City was only twenty years ago: the crime capital of the country, “under-policed … with crime out of control,” “the capitol of racial violence,” and one that, according to Jim Dwyer of the New York Times, was “schizophrenic, divided city,” with a “permanently locked underclass.”
“Survival of the fittest” is a fine way to describe one’s journey on New York City subways today, but the contemporary reference is aimed more at the pushing and shoving in and out of quickly-closing doors during the morning commute, not crime. In 1989, survival was literal. Safety came in the one square block on which you lived. And from here, Burns begins examining the case of five boys who became “the proxies for all sorts of other agendas.”

Essentially, the boys signify the enforcement of law and the levied justice. They are caught, they confess, they are punished, and let this be a lesson.

Looking at the late eighties, it’s hard to argue with the police officer M.O here. This is not to suggest that wrongful conviction is warranted by any means, but the pressure felt by the officers must have been immense. More than anything racial, The Central Park Five speaks about fractured cultures. While 30 boys entered the west side of Central Park on the night that Trisha Mieli (the Central Park Jogger) was attacked, only five were caught, and despite the groups ostensible camaraderie in “wilding” (a term referring to accosting people in packs), they are divided, simultaneously seeking shelter and confidence in anonymity. Others were attacked on the same night (a homeless man, two people on bikes), but each of the Central Park Five absolve themselves of blame, casting their own person as merely a watcher, an observer who doesn’t think these aggressions should happen, but who does nothing to stop it. Essentially, they acquiesce, so they condone.
This group mentality ultimately impels each boy (Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam) to confess to attack on the jogger. Each confession is against another one of the boys. None of them seem to coincide, but confessions are almost more powerful than videotape, so each boy is inevitably implicated by another. This is handled marvelously by Burns who splices their varied confessions together to show disconnects, something that went unseen – or, more likely, unacknowledged – by the detectives and police conducting the interrogations in 1989.

As the boys stand trial, there is wonky evidence, lack of DNA (still in its embryonic stages at that time), and incongruent retelling of the events. The five boys are tried in groups Three in one trial. Two in another. And none of them know until they see it on video tape that they’ve been turned in by the other because they’re being told they “can go home” if they cooperate. Together they stand, crumbling at the knees.

And this becomes the microcosm of racism and disenfranchisement.

Each boy needs to outlast the other and cooperate to save his own hide, something that exemplifies the paranoia around authority. To the boys, the presence of a police officer – particularly one from the hegemony – is immediately a sign of guilt – as are the prophesying headlines that splatter the boys photos on the morning paper and sarcastically throw in the perfunctory “alleged” when assessing their guilt.

On December 19, 2002, on account of a confession from Martias Reyes (the true rapist), the boys’ convictions are overturned, their records are cleansed, and they are released from prison. But here, Burns dispels the cinematic notion of overturned convictions. This is not a case where the defendant punches out the district attorney and the racist cop to the tune of a cheering crowd as he is lifted on the shoulders of a former rabble as they relish in victory.


The boys are free, but their lives are forever changes. Years of their youth are gone. Their names are still in the public record. The experience they could have gained at a job were gained in prison and come with a stigma that drains them like an inoperable tumor. Perhaps most cynically, they have been taught the precariousness of trust. Trust for one another, trust for authority, trust in justice.