For the latest feature from Florentine Films, Ken Burns teams with his daughter Sarah to break the PBS mould of his oeuvre (The Civil War, The War, Prohibition). The Central Park Five, a scathing investigation of the 1989 Central Park Jogger rape convictions that put five innocent Black and Latino teenagers behind bars based on no evidence, is perhaps the film everyone has been waiting for Burns to make. It’s not as though his methods or execution are any different, but rather the subject, more contemporary, more unsettling, more inviting of critique, has a darker tone (even when compared to The War). The wounds are still fresh, the stain yet un-erased. Burns further refines the techniques he has honed since the beginning, which have truly helped shape, or at least popularize the “archival documentary” form. Burns’ style appeals to an intense yet subliminal abstraction, which seems odd to say about such direct “factual” filmmaking. There is a kind of rigid and literal poetry to his combinations of image, sound, stills, movement, past, present. All the more reason for it to grace the silver screen, because it is a pure cinema.
The film itself is unsparing, not because Burns aims to manipulate a preconceived notion, but because his subject reveals itself to be terrifying on its own terms. Burns is essentially always unsparing in terms of detail, perspectives, and the bevy of materials harvested to produce a comprehensive portrait with drama, honesty, and impact. TCP5 feels modern, vital, and is something rare: it is important. The examination of the court cases, interrogations, coerced confessions, public / media slander, and night time shots of central park, alongside the interviews of the now free Central Park Five, build such mounting anxiety that my bones rattled. The gift of hindsight made all the glaring errors of justice and law enforcement (that should have been seen all along) impossibly frustrating, if not infuriating.
The Central Park Five opens this friday at the Ritz at the Bourse.