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The Central Park Five

THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon

MPAA Rating: NR

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 11/23/12 (limited)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 7, 2012

Near the end of The Central Park Five, historian Craig Steven Wilder, one of the handful of precise and insightful interview subjects that help put this story of gross injustice into context, says something so brutally honest that it takes us aback. He reminds us that too often we hear stories of public opinion serving as a courtroom, police abusing their authority to get confessions under duress, convictions overturned after the accused have been railroaded, and all sorts of things that make a mockery of our justice system, and every time, we have a quick discussion and debate—never as widespread or passionate as the mania leading up a trial and verdict—about what the lesson should be.

Wilder puts it plainly: "We should be horrified by ourselves." The only takeaway is a simple one: "We're not very good people, and we're often not." Just because his attitude and those statements are deeply cynical does not make them any less correct. The case of the five teenage boys who were wrongly convicted of a brutal assault and rape is a perfect storm of people who are supposed to have the public trust failing miserably on all counts: police and prosecutors cutting corners to give themselves the appearance of competence, politicians trying to look tough, and journalists engaging in the basest of the yellow brand of their business to raise panic and rage and racial tension.

Directors Ken and Sarah Burns (father and daughter) and David McMahon have taken a local crime and the resulting miscarriage of justice and given it the weight of a human tragedy. It is an impeccably researched film that thoroughly examines just about every conceivable personal and social repercussion of the crime, the trials, and the years-long move toward the truth emerging. The only stones left unturned are the statements of the law enforcement and legal department of New York City, all of whom declined the opportunity to be interviewed for the film. After hearing about their actions, it's little wonder; the only shock is that none of them suffered any consequences for the affair (The directors, wisely, do not shy away from putting these people's faces to their names).

The film leaves no doubt from the start as to the innocence of the five teenagers—now in their late 30s and all interviewed for the film (One is not shown, and his voice is altered)—with the guilty party's confession being one of the first things we hear. This is not a mystery, as it needn't be one.

In April of 1989, a woman was jogging through Central Park; a few hours later, she was found brutally beaten and sexually assaulted. During the time of her attack, a group of over 20 kids were causing havoc throughout the park—grabbing a bicyclist, throwing rocks at another, and beating up a homeless man. Within that group were Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam. The youngest were 14 years old; the oldest was 16.

All of them lived in Harlem; a few of them lived in the same housing project. They, along with others, were brought in for questioning for the attack on the woman. Only the five of them were eventually brought to trial.

All five speak of detectives yelling at and pressuring them into admitting to at least witnessing the crime. One of the boys confesses to participating in what the police decided—without any evidence to multiple perpetrators—was a gang rape; another says he touched the woman. All of their stories wind up contradicting each other. No lawyers are called in during any of this; if any of the teens' parents are present during the questioning and later videotaped confessions (The film shows portions of these tapes, and they are chilling), they do not speak on behalf of their child or request an attorney for them. Everyone agrees later on that they simply wanted to go home; no other considerations came to mind.

The crime and trial unleash a firestorm throughout the city, with Mayor Ed Koch stating that it will be a test for the justice system (He mocks the fact that he has to use the term "alleged" when referring to the defendants) and newspapers creating a supposed trend called "wilding" to describe an imaginary epidemic out of an isolated incident. People protest the boys' trial over the obvious lack of evidence, and a counter-protest group emerges to stand up for the victim's rights, claiming there is no racial motivation for its existence. The spokespeople's inability to notice the monotonous complexion of the protestors behind them displays an ignorance as deep as others in the press calling for the boys' lynching; they simply call it "hanging" instead.

Some start petitions to bring back the death penalty, despite the fact that the defendants are not adults and the victim is still alive. One of the jurors speaks as to how he was the single holdout in delivering a guilty verdict by rationally taking into account the lack of DNA evidence and the contradictory nature of the confessions. After 10 days of objections, the pressure became too much; like the accused in those interrogation rooms, he simply wanted to go home.

The film is clearly and rightly on the side of these boys, who became men far too early and under some of the worst possible conditions, but the directors also keep a firm grasp on the condition of the victim, who was in a coma and not expected to survive (Miraculously, she did), as well. The point is clear: The police's inability to conduct a proper investigation and leaning toward a quick answer not only ruined the lives of the five teenagers but also failed the victim.

Once the investigative work of The Central Park Five is complete, the film begins to examine how their wrongful convictions devastated the lives of these men: families broke apart, opportunities were limited after a change in the law prevented prison inmates from receiving educations, and one saw crime as the only option when no other door would open for him. At times, this is a devastating film, one that acknowledges the desire for but refuses to buy into an easy answer. It's nice to believe in the best of our natures; it should never be at expense of ignoring the worst.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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