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“Central Park Five” Documentary Review

“Central Park Five” sheds light on the issues of racism and systemic injustice in modern-day America. PHOTO/ Florentine Films

By Carmen Saffioti

Published: October 24th, 2018

Central Park Five, directed by Ken Burns, is a testament to racism, injustice, and corruption in modern-day America. The film is very impressive in telling the facts and getting perspectives from many people involved in the case. The pacing of the documentary is also impressive, building tension to the boys being incarcerated. In the documentary film, viewers can relate the problems seen in films to those in real life, such as the problem of mass incarceration in the USA – the country imprisons the most people per capita. Despite the clear racism and systematic injustice in the film, the most tragic moments are the human ones. The documentary does a great job at organizing the events and emotions involved in a tasteful manner– for both the victim jogger and the boys who were falsely imprisoned.

The documentary begins with the five men’s childhoods. This does a great job at humanizing the men at the center of the film. It is also a testament to their innocence which they lost during the trial and while in prison. Their innocence that we see at this point of the documentary strongly contradicts what the press depicts. This aspect of the film makes the racism and sensationalism of the press at the time look truly appalling.

The end of the film also did a great job at humanizing the men in the film. The men talked about the opportunities they missed– having a career, traveling, getting married and that no amount of money given to them can restore their youth. It is a reminder of the heavy toll that prisoners have to pay in America. Although the men are freed from prison, the documentary does not end “happily.”  

I was pleasantly surprised how the documentary handled the jogger’s story as well.  Instead of being a nameless victim throughout the film, the film carefully documented her case in a way that was very respectful. The choice to include her name in the film is also a humanizing one. Trisha Meili’s story is very moving, yet she does not remember the events that led to her tragedy. However, in her place, the public, the press, and the prosecutors antagonized the Central Park Five as a part of a “war on crime” agenda in New York City.  I was angered during the film when the prosecutors of this case brought in Meili as a part of their argument, even though she does not recall her attack. I found that this was both a manipulation of the facts and of Meili. Finally, what I found most tragic is that the justice system failed Meili as well. They failed to find her attacker, so he was able to continue his crimes while they imprisoned five innocent people. 

As a result of questionable tactics by the NYPD, the five men were put under pressure for hours. Since they were children at the time, they did not understand the implications of their actions. Their parents were misled about what they were being held for, they were not offered an attorney, and they were made to believe that they could not go home until they made a false confession. These tactics are cruel and should be made illegal, yet this is not uncommon in our current criminal justice system. As prosecutors want to build up their reputation as “tough on crime,” they use more and more of these techniques.

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