As someone who has been interested in issues of social justice all her life, the experience of watching a documentary as well-made as The Central Park Five is can be thrilling and depressing at the same time: thrilling because it may be able to make a difference in the world, but depressing due to the subject matter. As a woman who is currently being trained in the study and preservation of media records and documentation, this film also became more than just a look at a miscarriage of justice, it became a became a meditation on media and created memory. Instead of being a film that focused solely on the story of five young men convicted of a crime they did not commit, The Central Park Five emerges as a much more complex and nuanced piece, 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 journalism and the iron-clad power structure of the legal system.
One evening in 1989, a young woman went jogging in Central Park and was brutally attacked. She was raped and beaten, her skull fractured twice, and left for dead, her body temperature dropping by the minute. Meanwhile, in the same park, a group of approximately 20-30 young men also entered the park and got rowdy. While their behavior was not entirely wholesome, it certainly did not include rape or violence of that nature. A few of the teens pulled cyclists off of their bikes, a homeless person was roughed up, and various pedestrians were harassed. As a general principle, when it comes to group situations like this, not everyone present was a participant, nor did everyone present agree with or really understand the impact of what was going on. They were teenagers.
A short time later, five of these young men, between the ages of 14 and 16 years old, were picked up and questioned in connection with the attack on the woman in the park, not in connection with the activities that they had been present for. Subjected to an extensive period of interrogation (30 hours), each one was coerced into giving their own individual version of a rape that never occurred. Even though each boy’s videotaped “confession” directly conflicted with the other one’s (except one, Yusef Salaam, who refused to be taped), they were all sentenced to time. The eldest one, Korey Wise, at 16, was forced to serve his time in Riker’s, as an adult. Scarcely more than children, these young men had their innocence stolen and lives ruined until 2002, when a series of events caused the real culprit to come out of the woodwork and confess, exonerating them of the crime but only after a remarkably long sentence.
The Central Park Five is a film that looks not only at the way in which we conduct ourselves when it comes to matters of youth culture, race, economics and sex crimes, but it also is a startling study on the way that crime investigation technology has changed over the years 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, makes a much larger statement for issues of justice in the world at large. While the story contained within The Central Park Five is a case that occurred in 1989 in New York City, other cases, ranging from California to Texas to West Memphis, Tennessee have assumed similar features and resulted in similar fates for those involved. The names and the faces change, the details on the crimes the individuals are charged with alter, but the basic premise of false confession remains unmodified and the effects on the individuals involved remain just as cruel.
The Central Park Jogger case was considered the “crime of the century,” and the media and legal personalities at the time advertised the case as justice having “triumphed” over the youth that was 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. The documentary does a remarkable job in not only indicting the NYPD for taking advantage of a group of young teenage boys and their vulnerable state after being questioned interminably for 30 hours or so, but also turns the camera right around to established journalists as well. This documentary questions the state of justice in relationship to the socio-economic and political climate of New York while also taking to task the reporters and media outlets who pronounced sentence on the boys and intensified the atmosphere of racially-motivated criminal branding.
As someone who works with moving image media and historical documentation on a regular basis, the concept that inconsistent videotaped “confessions” were acceptable to legal professionals and allowed as authentic evidence in a court of law is reprehensible. The documentary’s use of these videotapes alongside the news footage at the time was not only effective but also informative in producing a feel for what the circumstances around the case must have been like. These items, alongside the modern interviews of local journalists who had been around at the time and the Central Park Five and their families created a space in which the viewer could really look at the way in which historical documents were manipulated by the powerful. Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon showed us the video footage of the boys’ descriptions and each related his separate story. Not one “confession” corroborated the other’s. So how in the world was this allowed to happen?
The pacing of The Central Park Five fits what the frenetic energy of 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, nor will you be seeing a standard “Ken Burns”-structure. From the get-go, it is very clearly a collaborative project with his daughter and son-in-law, and the traditional voiceover narration would have been extremely out of place. The terrible nature of the story and the eloquence of the Five themselves serve as the primary mouthpiece without being judgmental, embittered or even (surprisingly) angry.
The film includes several dignitaries from New York (former Mayor Koch), various journalists from different publications, and a staggering amount of news and local television footage cut together in such a skillful way that, as someone who studies film archiving and historical footage, I was highly impressed. Editing in a documentary can tell as much of a story as the documentary’s subject itself, and the way that 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 this kind of bullying and false convictions hasn’t stopped, even today. 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 exists to finally give these men the voice they never had. It reminds us of the meaning of “innocent until proven guilty” and asks us to be conscious of media intent and consider that our justice system, while designed to “serve and protect” may need some retooling.
Stalk Ariel Schudson electriconically at @Sinaphile.