Burns' new film focuses on 1989 Central Park rape case

front page on April 21, 1989, conveys the tension surrounding the heinous attack. N.Y. Daily News
front page on April 21, 1989, conveys the tension surrounding the heinous attack. N.Y. Daily News (N.Y. Daily News)
Posted: April 17, 2013

Ken Burns is known as our most Wagnerian documentary-maker for an ambitious catalogue of nonfiction films like The Civil War, Baseball: The Tenth Inning, and The Dust Bowl, which distill and explain sweeping chunks of the American experience.

On Tuesday night, he unveils a documentary for PBS with a narrower, more contemporary focus, The Central Park Five. It is not what we have come to think of as Burnsian except in its thoroughness of research and assurance of execution.

The film reexamines the brutal beating and rape of Trisha Meili in 1989 as she took her usual nighttime run through Central Park. The heinous assault set off a cauldron of unexpressed racial tensions in the city and sparked the biggest tabloid frenzy since Robert Chambers became infamous as "The Preppie Murderer" in 1986 (for a crime that also occurred in Central Park).

Five Harlem teenagers - Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray - were swept up by the police and wrongfully convicted on multiple felony charges. The victim, who barely clung to life for weeks, eventually made a miraculous recovery but was unable to remember anything about her ordeal.

The incident touched racial hot buttons: a successful, white, female professional - Meili, then 28, worked as an investment banker on Wall Street - trying to get some exercise is viciously ravished by a band of marauding young men made up of four African Americans and a Latino.

For a public already alarmed by constant stories about "wolfpacks," roving groups of African American teens assaulting people at random, the case of the Central Park Jogger became emblematic of all that was wrong with crime-plagued New York.

This was five years after Bernhard Goetz had become a perverse sort of folk hero for shooting four young would-be muggers on the subway.

In the immediate aftermath of the Central Park attack, there was extraordinary pressure on the NYPD to solve the crime. Five suspects in hand were worth 10 in the bush.

Salaam, Santana, Wise, McCray, and Richardson were detained, manipulated, lied to, and coached by police detectives in the course of a belligerent, sustained interrogation. By the end, the boys, some as young as 14, would have said anything just to be released.

All of them were convicted of multiple felonies and sentenced to maximum terms. (Wise was the only one not considered a minor.) This even though the only evidence against them was their coerced confessions. They were exonerated in 2002 after another man confessed to the crime and DNA testing confirmed his admission.

Burns has assembled, as always, a remarkable array of footage and photographs. He includes the observations, often rueful, of journalists, politicians, a juror from the trial and, most important, the five principals, now middle-age men. (McCray declined to appear on camera)

Jim Dwyer, a columnist who covered the story for New York Newsday, concludes, "A lot of people didn't do their jobs . . . . These young men were the proxies for all kinds of other agendas."

It's a vivid and gripping documentary (although, at two hours, somewhat longer than it needs to be), a grave indictment of a city and a system at the breaking point.

The Central Park Five

9 p.m. Tuesday on WHYY TV12

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552, dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv.

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