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Movie review: 'The Central Park Five' is a heartbreaking look back at racism, crime and class

Posted 1:08am on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013

Unrated; 119 min.

In 1989, a female jogger in New York's Central Park was raped and almost beaten to death. Five black teenagers were arrested in what soon became known as a "wilding" incident, of kids going wild in the park. If you're over 35, you almost certainly remember this, and you might also remember that those teenagers were convicted and put away the following year.

Did you know that 13 years later, these boys were found innocent and their convictions overturned -- that these boys didn't rape or beat anybody? And that anyone in law enforcement or the media who cared to know the truth could have discovered it years before? The false story led newscasts and created headlines for weeks. The true story became a footnote.

Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, The Central Park Five uses interviews and archival footage to tell how it all happened. It was a time straight out of a Spike Lee movie, a time when New York was still a crime mecca. The rape and beating of this woman made the public angry and put pressure on the police and politicians to act. The cops rounded up a score of teenagers who were in the park that night and subjected them to harsh, relentless and repetitive questioning.

The Central Park Five is worth seeing, both for the ways it's timeless and for the ways it encapsulates an era. The small emotions and behaviors are timeless, of course, but the crime and the class and racial polarization seem like something from the New York of Do the Right Thing, also from 1989. It doesn't seem like the America of today. Or perhaps that's too optimistic.

See The Central Park Five and decide for yourself.

Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; opens March 1 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

-- Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

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