The Central Park Five

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The Central Park Five
The Central Park Five poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKen Burns
Sarah Burns
David McMahon
Sundance Selects
Florentine Films
The Central Park Five Film Project
Distributed bySundance Selects
Release date
  • May 24, 2012 (2012-05-24) (Cannes Film Festival)
  • November 23, 2012 (2012-11-23) (United States)
Running time
119 min
CountryUnited States

The Central Park Five is a 2012 documentary film about the Central Park jogger case, directed by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon.[1] It covers the arrests, interrogations, trials, convictions and vacating the convictions of the five men who were teenagers in 1989 at the time of the case. It was released in the US on November 23, 2012.

Sarah Burns published related books on the case, under two different titles: The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (2011) and The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City's Most Infamous Crimes (2012).


The Central Park jogger case was based on the violent assault, rape, and sodomy of Trisha Meili, a female jogger, in New York City's Central Park, on April 19, 1989, as well as what were thought to be related attacks by a large group of youths on eight other persons in the park that night, including two that left victims unconscious.[2] Meili was so badly beaten that she was in a coma for 12 days. She was a 28-year-old investment banker at the time. In July 1990, during the trial of the first three of the defendants, The New York Times described the attack on the female jogger as "one of the most widely publicized crimes of the 1980s."[3]

The documentary provides background, interviews, expert analysis, and details of associated facts related to the case, prosecution and the conviction of the five suspects for the rape and also on charges related to assault of a male jogger. It documents the accounts of four of being coerced to confess to the rape; each withdrew such confessions before trial and always maintained his innocence.

The film also presents analysis to suggest that the police should have connected Matias Reyes to the case at the time that it happened. He was later found to have committed a rape in the park two days earlier. Convicted in 1990 as a serial rapist and murderer, Reyes confessed in 2001 to the crime against the female jogger to another inmate in prison and later to authorities. He said he acted alone. A 2002 investigation by the DA's office found that DNA analysis identified him as the sole contributor of the semen found in and on the rape victim, and other evidence affirmed his confession and guilt. Based on the newly discovered evidence and its analysis of the prosecution, the DA's office recommended that the court vacate the convictions of the five men of all charges, which it did. The state withdrew all charges against the men.[2]

In 2003, the Central Park Five, four of whom were younger than 16 and only one was 16 at the time of the crime, sued New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. The city had resisted settling.

Ken Burns said he hoped release of the documentary would push the city to settle the case against it.[4] The city settled the case for $41 million in 2014, after Bill de Blasio was elected as mayor.[5]


Sarah Burns, the daughter of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, worked for a summer as a paralegal in the office of one of the lawyers handling a lawsuit against the city on behalf of the five men who had been convicted in the case.[1] She had written her undergraduate thesis on the topic of racism in the media coverage of the attack and related events, which inspired development of this documentary.[6]


Ken Burns at the 73rd Annual Peabody Awards

Critic A. O. Scott of The New York Times said of the film, which he ranked as the fifth-best documentary of 2012: "A notorious crime—the rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989—is revisited in this painful, angry, scrupulously reported story of race, injustice and media frenzy."[7]

Critic Manohla Dargis of The New York Times suggested that the film could have explored more about the defendants. She wrote, referring to a Village Voice article published in April 1989: "residents ... identified several of the accused teenagers as belonging to a group of sometimes violent neighborhood troublemakers. ... Maybe the filmmakers thought that this history might muddy the waters and cast suspicion on the teenagers all over again. The problem is that by ignoring it—as well as gliding rather too fast over the gang attacks on the other people in Central Park on April 19—it seems as if there were something here that needs to be hidden."[8]

Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, saying "Our justice system presumes defendants are innocent until proven guilty. It also places extreme pressure on the police to make arrests leading to convictions—to 'solve' the crimes. The police officers knew, or should have known, that the confessions involved were extracted by psychological force."[9]

The film received a Peabody Award in 2013 "for telling a harrowing, instructive story of fear, racism and mob mentality, and for exposing the media madness that fueled the investigation."[10]

As of 14 May 2018, the film had an approval rating of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 71 reviews and an average score of 8/10.[11] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 79 out of 100, based on 20 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[12]


Award Category Recipients and Nominees Result
Alliance of Women Film Journalists Outstanding Achievement by a Woman in the Film Industry Sarah Burns Won
Black Film Critics Circle Awards Best Documentary Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David MacMahon Won
Black Reel Awards Outstanding Documentary Sarah Burns, Ken Burns, David McMahon Won
Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards Critics Choice Award - Best Documentary Feature Sarah Burns, Ken Burns, David McMahon Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Documentary Sarah Burns, Ken Burns, David McMahon Nominated
Chicago International Film Festival Audience Choice Award - Best Documentary Feature Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon Won
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Documentary Screenplay Sarah Burns, David McMahon, and Ken Burns Nominated

Representations in other media[edit]

Sarah Burns published a related book on the case, under two different titles: The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (2011) and The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City's Most Infamous Crimes (2012).


  1. ^ a b "NYC is pressed to settle Central Park jogger case". USA Today. April 6, 2013. Retrieved August 15, 2015.
  2. ^ a b Nancy E Ryan (December 5, 2002). "Affirmation in response to motion to vacate judgment of conviction" (PDF). Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York.
  3. ^ "'Smart, Driven' Woman Overcomes Reluctance". The New York Times. July 17, 1990.
  4. ^ "City Subpoenas Film Outtakes as It Defends Suit by Men Cleared in '89 Rape". The New York Times. October 3, 2012.
  5. ^ Weiser, Benjamin (September 5, 2014). "Settlement Is Approved in Central Park Jogger Case, but New York Deflects Blame". The New York Times. Retrieved September 23, 2019.
  6. ^ "People were afraid to go into Central Park then, but it was still a kind of holy place. It offends people, the idea that you could be a victim of crime in Central Park, which is supposed to be the city's backyard". New York Daily News. April 9, 2013. Retrieved August 26, 2016.
  7. ^ Scott, A.O. (December 14, 2012). "25 Favorites From A Year When 10 Aren't Enough". The New York Times.
  8. ^ Manohla Dargis (November 21, 2012). "Filmmakers Still Seek Lessons From a Case That Rocked a City; The Documentary 'The Central Park Five'". The New York Times.
  9. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The Central Park Five Movie Review (2012) | Roger Ebert". Retrieved December 4, 2017.
  10. ^ "The Central Park Five", 73rd Annual Peabody Awards, May 2014.
  11. ^ "The Central Park Five (2012)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved May 14, 2018.
  12. ^ "The Central Park Five Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved May 14, 2018.

External links[edit]