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Case Number 25758: Small Claims Court

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The Central Park Five

PBS // 2012 // 119 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jason Panella // June 1st, 2013

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All Rise...

Judge Jason Panella mistakenly thought this was the long rumored reunion special for NBC's Friends.

The Charge

The Crime Horrified A City. The Truth Will Shock a Nation.

The Case

New York City, 1989. In a city besieged by racial tension, a female jogger is brutally raped and beaten in Central Park. Five teens, all black or Latino, are rounded up by the NYPD as suspects. Swept up by the media's sensationalistic take on the crime, the public howls for justice. The five boys confess to the crime on video after intense pressure from the authorities, eventually spending between six and thirteen years behind bars. The awful truth is the "Central Park Five" were innocent of the crime; a serial rapist confessed to the attack in 2002, and the original convictions were vacated. But the damage was long since done. The Central Park Five had their youth robbed from them, and they became outcasts of their communities.

With a runtime of 119 minutes, The Central Park Five may one of Ken Burns's (The Civil War) shortest documentaries, but there's nothing slight about the film. Burns, along with his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon, look at the infamous "Central Park jogger" crime, taking in all of the surrounding factors that led to the imprisonment of these five innocent young men. What makes the the story work especially well is the dispensing of one of Burns's trademarks: the omniscient narrator. The creative team instead allow the five men speak for themselves, telling their story in their own words. The result is an incredibly moving look at how deep-rooted fears and prejudices can easily override a society's ability to act justly.

The Central Park Five began as a pet project of Sarah Burns. She studied the Central Park jogger case as a college student, and wrote a book about the exonerated suspects. After befriending the five men, she brought her husband and her father onboard to make a film about them. The final product is a sharp and focused labor of love. There are plenty of interviews with lawyers, journalists, former mayors, and other key figures. Through these interviews, we explore the complexities surrounding the case, even giving the police and prosecutors a fair shake. The film asks questions that audiences need to absorb: How did we let this happen? What is justice? Where do our biases—racial or otherwise—come into play? What can we do to prevent this sort of thing from happening again?

The narrative progresses chronologically, covering the events from the night of the attack right up to the present day. Much attention is given to the psychological tactics the police use to wear these five boys down, and there's a big focus on how the media resorted to using animalistic terms when writing about the suspects (more than one newspaper or TV station labeled them as a "wolf pack"). The Burns clan use text to fill in some of the blanks, which leads to the only knock I have against the film: some of the typographical choices result in walls of text that are difficult to read. This is only a minor problem, though.

PBS does a nice job with this 1.78:1 letterboxed transfer, its sharp image giving the darker tones a full-bodied richness. Both of the Dolby audio tracks (5.1 and 2.0) are clear and well-balanced. The extras are excellent too. "Interviews With the Filmmakers" (18:43) gives Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon room to explain how and why they made the film. "After The Central Park Five" (13:03) follows the documentary's subjects after the completion of the film, including their emotional reactions to standing-ovation crowds at film festivals.

The Central Park Five is a phenomenal documentary, perhaps the most purely journalistic film Ken Burns has ever made.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 98

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
• Spanish (SDH)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurettes


• IMDb

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