The Central Park Five screens on March 16 at 9:15pm. *Photo supplied
The Central Park Five screens on March 16 at 9:15pm. *Photo supplied

Director: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David Mc
Run time: 119 mins
Showing: March 16, 9:15pm.

New York in the late 1980s averaged six murders a day, according to New York Times journalist Jim Dwyer, and normally stirred little reaction in the newsroom.

But when a white woman jogger is found raped and beaten to an inch of her life in Central Park in 1989 — the most sacred of places in the Big Apple — everybody reacted.

As the film hauntingly explains how five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem came to be convicted of this brutal attack, I wondered how I could have possibly missed a story that gripped New York so tightly for so long.

The answer probably lies in the appallingly-reluctant coverage of news of their innocence — thanks to a confession by a serial rapist — received in 2002. The refusal, years later, of many to accept that these men had been so wronged goes to the heart of the film.

When the truth finally came out, Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wisee had served between six and 13 years in prison, their lives torn to pieces, their youth lost forever.

Miscarriage of justice

That such a miscarriage of justice occurred is a crushingly depressing reflection of the impact of the subsequent media frenzy, and people’s susceptibility to pressure and prejudice. A white girl set upon by a group of black and latino youths? The city was enraged and the clamour for arrests was deafening.

Crucially, the victim — who remarkably eventually recovered — was hurt to such an extent she could not remember anything about the night in question. The police, though, pounced on a group of black lads that were causing trouble in the park around the time of the attack convinced the case was a ‘home run’.

The Central Park Five are all interviewed, as are family members, and reveal —  with solemn simplicity — how officers broke their terrified minds. Police footage  of their ‘confessions’ after hours of mind games and aggressive interrogation is captivating.

The prosecution’s desperation to satisfy a baying media is clear. That so many people were happy to accept the individual confessions without making sure they corroborated, will leave you shaking your head.

The journey the five went through — from the night of the assault to the current day as ‘free’ men — is the pulse of the film.

Back then they were boys caught in a tidal wave of fear and racial prejudice, who understood little of what was going on around them.

The film expertly puts you in troubled New York at that period and at times you feel you are actually in the interrogation room with the teenagers, so vivid and detailed are their accounts. A compelling account of a case that shattered so many lives.