“People had it worked out in their heads that their block was safe,” recalls New York Times journalist Jim Dwyer, looking back on his city’s amorphous late-’80s terror. The images we see tell a darker story: grungy, graffiti-laden corners, wary glances between strangers and an unrepentant Bernhard Goetz saying he’d shoot again. The Central Park Five, a harrowing evocation of race hatred, captures that era and the night in April 1989, when a white female jogger was found teetering near death, sexually assaulted, her skull cracked. The crime became an instant symbol of national decay, the term wilding was added to our lexicon, and five black and Latino teens—coerced into extremely stupid lies by overzealous detectives—fell into the maw of a mob-inflamed legal apparatus.
Working with his daughter and son-in-law, documentary legend Ken Burns (The Civil War) does a thorough job unpacking a miscarriage of justice, letting the five speak in recent postjail interviews, as well as through ancient video testimony, the accused shaking like the boys they were. The attention to detail is fine-grained, especially on the slippery slope of plea bargaining. Missing are two pieces that might have turned this into an urban classic: Where are the interviews with the tabloid writers who wrongly stuck to their story, even after actual rapist Matias Reyes stepped forward in 2002? And though she remembers nothing from the attack (a blessing), isn’t it time for a serious film crew to check in with Trisha Meili, who must have thoughts on the second crime committed in her name? No matter: This effort is required viewing for anyone content to remember a dangerous town from afar.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf