The year-end movie season isn’t only restricted to big budget Hollywood dramas or micro-budget indies looking for golden statues, as there are a myriad of documentaries hitting cinemas. Now playing at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto is the highly anticipated The Central Park Five, which surprisingly didn’t make the short list for the upcoming Academy Award’s.
This documentary examines the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in Central Park along with the national fervor and uproar that the case caused not only in New York, but nationwide.
After having spent five years researching her book The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of City Wilding, author and co-director Sarah Burns teams up with her husband David McMahon and her dad Ken Burns for this rather dryly, yet very competent recounting of the tragedy of justice that took place. Through the use of some fantastic archival footage the film is equal parts illuminating and absolutely unsettling as this story really shines a harsh light on the racial divide that still existed in America at that time, and many would argue still exists to this very day. While it brings up a great number of social issues that are still being debated as we speak, it does so rather dispassionately. It takes sides without question, but legitimate human emotion tends to be glossed over in favor of the facts or the lack of available ones as these teens essentially got railroaded into a confession to satisfy a hungry media in a city that at the time was teetering on absolute ruin. The film does admittedly borrow its narrative flow from the films of Ken Burns, being fairly fact driven and in this case it actually worked against the overall story, because while it was highly fascinating and is a socially and historically important case that we should still be discussing, we as an audience never feel the outrage that a story like this tends to engender, making for a good watch but not the kind of film that attempts to manipulate us into feeling something. While manipulation like that can be a bad thing in films when over used, their needs to at least be a little bit of it, so the film can rise above being anything more than an educational piece.
As Central Park Five begins its exclusive run at the Bloor Cinema, remember that what we as an audience are getting is a fairly clear cut window into the past based on the facts in front of us and not the emotions or rhetoric of the time. In many ways it is a film that both succeeds and fails at the same time, as a clear dispassionate look at the facts of a case are always helpful but we as a species will never learn from our past mistakes if we don’t at least try and look at the emotional elements of it all.
Directed by: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Top image: A scene from The Central Park Five.