TW/CW: sexual assault, violence
I find it almost impossible to discuss the documentary The Central Park Five (Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon, 2012) without getting furious, frustrated and multiple other F-words.
Looking back on the film now, I almost want to say that it was ahead of its time. Yet it came way too late to help the 5 young men who were the victims of the racism and ridiculous injustice that permeated New York City in the 1980s (and still does).
As a woman who is trained in the preservation of media records and documentation, this film is more than just a documentary. Instead of being a film focusing on the story of five young men convicted of a crime they did not commit, it became a more complex and nuanced text, speaking not only to the heartbreaking reality of socio-economic affairs and the state of what existed as “evidence” in the 1980s but also to the ghastly and egregious positioning of the journalistic media and the iron-clad power structure of the legal system.
The Central Park Five is a film that looks at the way we conducted ourselves when it came to matters of youth culture, race, economics and sex crimes and is a startling study on the way that crime investigation technology has changed and, tragically, the methods that may not have. The power of this documentary is that it committed a story to film that, while being both time-sensitive and geographically centric, is actually able to make a much larger statement for the world at large.
The Central Park Five is based on a case that occurred in 1989 in New York City. It has been tragically repeated (with mild shifts in details) in crimes located all over the country, from Illinois to Texas to Arkansas and beyond. The names and the faces may change, the details on the crimes and individuals might alter, but the basic premise of false confessions remains unmodified.
One April evening in 1989, a young woman was jogging in Central Park. She was brutally attacked, her skull fractured twice, she was sexually assaulted and left for dead, body temperature dropping by the minute. Meanwhile, in the same park, a group of approximately 20-25 young men of all different ethnicities (read: non- white) decided to go the park and hang out. Their behavior was not exactly on the up and up so these kids were easy to blame. A few of the teens pulled cyclists off of their bikes, a few beat up a homeless person, others harassed pedestrians. The group on the whole was generally rowdy and rough-and-tumble. But, as generally holds in a situation like this, not everyone participated in these minor infractions nor did the entire collection of teens present think that what was going on that night was fun or cool. Lots of peer pressure. They certainly didn’t understand the impact of what was going on. They were teenagers.
Five of these young men between the ages of 14 and 16 years old were picked up in
connection with the attack on the woman and subjected to an extensive period of interrogation. Every boy was coerced into giving their own separate version of an assault that never occurred and every boy’s videotaped “confession” managed to directly conflicted with the other one’s and yet…they were all sentenced to time in prison.
The eldest teenager was 16 and forced to serve his sentence in Riker’s as an adult. Scarcely
more than children, these young men had their lives ruined until 2002 when DNA evidence had progressed to the point where the real culprit was located and confessed, thus exonerating them of the crime. But their lives had been permanently altered and their teen years were gone.
The Central Park case was considered the “crime of the century.” The media and legal personalities at the time blew it up as justice having “triumphed” over the youth plaguing the city as well as a certain percentage of the ethnic make-up that the upper classes clearly saw as synonymous with the criminal element. This documentary does a remarkable job of indicting the NYPD for taking advantage of a group of young teenage boys and their vulnerable state but it also turns the camera right around and really investigates the field of news journalism and press tactics. This film questions the state of justice then (and now) and takes to task al reporters who did not think to question the case any further because they simply accepted what the legal system had to say.
The very concept that clashing videotaped “confessions” were acceptable to legal professionals and fully accepted in a court of law is beyond comprehension and anathema to me. The use of the videotapes, archival news footage and modern interviews of the journalists is extremely powerful in The Central Park Five and really platforms every injustice. The filmmakers deftly created a space for the viewer to examine the way historical materials can be manipulated by the powerful.
The original video footage of the boys’ descriptions contained in the film showed the infuriating way in which filmed evidence obviously contradicted the narrative that White Upper Class NYC America was pushing and yet…the NYPD held tight to their one theory and belief and that was what won. Not the truth. Not one of the teenager’s videos matched any of the others. How was this allowed to happen?
The pacing of the film fits the frenetic energy of what 1989 New York City must have
been like: busy, broken, angry, fitful. Like any documentary, this has a goal and a
story. But this film is not heavy-handed. It is inclusive of dignitaries from New York
(former Mayor Koch), several journalists from several publications, and a staggering
amount of news and local television footage. Editing in a documentary can tell as much of a story as the documentary itself, and the way this was cut showed remarkable attention and passion for the subject.
This is an important film. Not only because of Sarah Burns’ best-selling book that
this was based upon, not only because of the lives of Yusef Salaam, Kevin
Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, but because the
kind of bullying and false convictions shown in this film hasn’t stopped. In fact, it has only gotten worse. While DNA technology has improved since the Central Park Five case, the racism and discrimination that allowed their conflicting evidence, non-criminal pasts and alibis to go ignored has not left the building. The Central Park Five is a film that is there to remind us of the meaning of “innocent until proven guilty” but also asks who is doing the proving and is their purpose just?
What’s Next? Talk with others. Take action.
We are proud of our SOCIAL INTEREST GROUPS—WEEKLY PHONE CALLS to discuss, gain insights, build communities— and help solve some of the most difficult challenges the world has today. Calls are for Members Only (although you can join the first call for free). Not yet a member of The Good Men Project? Join below!
Join the Conscious Intersectionality FACEBOOK GROUP here. Includes our new call series on Human Rights.
Join The Good Men Project Community
All levels get to view The Good Men Project site AD-FREE. The $50 Platinum Level is an ALL-ACCESS PASS—join as many groups and classes as you want for the entire year. The $25 Gold Level gives you access to any ONE Social Interest Group and ONE Class–and other benefits listed below the form. Or…for $12, join as a Bronze Member and support our mission, and have a great ad-free viewing experience.
Register New Account
Please note: If you are already a writer/contributor at The Good Men Project, log in here before registering. (Request new password if needed).
ANNUAL PLATINUM membership ($50 per year) includes:
1. AN ALL ACCESS PASS — Join ANY and ALL of our weekly calls, Social Interest Groups, classes, workshops and private Facebook groups. We have at least one group phone call or online class every day of the week.
2. See the website with no ads when logged in!
3. MEMBER commenting badge.
ANNUAL GOLD membership ($25 per year) includes all the benefits above — but only ONE Weekly Social Interest Group and ONE class.
ANNUAL BRONZE membership ($12 per year) is great if you are not ready to join the full conversation but want to support our mission anyway. You’ll still get a BRONZE commenting badge, and you can pop into any of our weekly Friday Calls with the Publisher when you have time. This is for people who believe—like we do—that this conversation about men and changing roles and goodness in the 21st century is one of the most important conversations you can have today.
We have pioneered the largest worldwide conversation about what it means to be a good man in the 21st century. Your support of our work is inspiring and invaluable.
Photo credit: Florentine Films