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Race, Place and Family are Central to 'Central Park Five'
April 15, 2013  | By David Bianculli

The Central Park Five, the newest Ken Burns documentary to hit PBS addresses his familiar, favored themes of race and place. But this time, making the movie was a family affair.

The two-hour film, premiering Tuesday, April 16 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), had a brief theatrical run last year, but was produced in association with Wahington’s WETA-TV. Ken Burns (left) shares production, direction and writing duties with his daughter Sarah Burns (left, center) and her husband, David McMahon (far left).

It’s far from an exercise in nepotism, however. McMahon’s previous credits as a producer include several of Ken Burns’ recent PBS documentaries, including Baseball and The War — and Sarah Burns literally wrote the book on the Central Park Five, the subject of this new nonfiction study. Her Central Park Five book, published in 2011, was the foundation upon this new movie was built.

 Together, this filmmaking family forges a slightly different approach than in Ken Burns’ previous works. There are no voiceover actors, no slow glides across period photographs, and there is no narration. There’s just the story — told, mostly from beginning to end, by those who lived through it. And told with restraint, compassion, and quiet artistry.

That The Central Park Five feels, in part, like a one-sided story has nothing to do with fairness or completeness. The documentary is all about a 1989 assault and rape case in which a white female jogger, while exercising in Central Park at night, was brutally attacked and beaten. Police accused a quintet of black and Latino teenagers of the crime, all of whom were convicted, in an infamous case that incited racial tensions throughout much of New York.

Police and prosecutors were asked to take part in the documentary, but they declined — perhaps because, after the young men served seven years in prison, the real attacker came forward and confessed, and his DNA was proven to be a positive match. The police, the prosecutors, the media, the city government — all of them come off looking foolish at best, and incompetent and irresponsible at worst.

However, those who do take part in The Central Park Five, to great effect, include former mayor Ed Koch (now deceased), New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer, and the five accused, convicted and exonerated youths. One of them participates only in voiceover; the rest show up on camera for their interviews, shedding tears and staring wistfully.

There’s no way, while watching The Central Park Five, to be proud of the city, or its officials, in investigating and prosecuting this volatile case. But when it’s over, one source of pride is evident.

Ken Burns, thanks to the contributions of his collaborators this time around, must be one proud papa.

(For my Fresh Air with Terry Gross review of Central Park Five, see the Fresh Air website on Tuesday afternoon, April 16.)

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