Monday, January 6, 2014

The Central Park Five

Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon.
2012. Not Rated, 119 minutes.
Antron McCray
Kevin Richardson
Yusef Salaam
Raymond Santana
Korey Wise
Rev. Calvin Butts
Raymond Santana Sr.
Natalie Byfield
Ed Koch

Way back in April of 1989, I was a high school senior in Queens, NY counting down the days until graduation. Having already enlisted in the U.S. Army, I was going to be on my way to New Jersey for basic training shortly after that joyous event. It was then that news broke of The Central Park Jogger Case. A woman was found unconscious in the famed park, having been savagely beaten and raped. Back then I was in the habit of reading the newspaper every day and followed the story this way, as lots of New Yorkers did. Within a few days a group of five teenage boys, ranging in age from fourteen to sixteen, were arrested and charged with the crime to which they confessed. In my seventeen year old eyes, this was pretty much the end of it. There was coverage of it daily which certainly went on well past my July departure from the city, but it appeared to be an open and shut case. Indeed, they were all convicted and sent to jail.

Turns out, there was lots more to the case than I thought. There was never any evidence against any of these kids. They happened to be in the park that night, with as many as twenty-five boys all total, but nothing linking any of them to the rape. The state’s case against them was based solely on the strength of the separately video-taped confessions of each of the boys. Never mind that each of their stories was wildly different than the rest. The point is, they said they did it. The only question was whether these confessions were coerced or not. They were. That might seem like a spoiler, but it’s not. The important part is the odyssey it took to bring this to light. The Central Park Five, co-helmed by documentary god Ken Burns, explores the case from the night the jogger’s body was discovered by some people passing by up to the present.

One thing I did know back in ’89 was that this was a racially charged media sensation right from the start. It had to be. True, New York is as diverse a city as we have in the world. However, at least back then, it was operating under a form of segregation the citizens imposed upon themselves. Every ethnicity had their own neighborhoods. As is the American way, blacks and hispanics were pretty much lumped together. Often, crossing the color lines was met with violence. I have personal friends who were actually chased out of White areas. One such chase ended with the young black male very near my high school. I haven’t lived there since leaving for the Army so I’m not sure if it’s still this way. On top of all that racial tension, crack cocaine had hit the city only about five years prior and brought with it new levels of addiction, money, and violence. Here, we have a case where the victim is white and her alleged assailants are black and hispanic.

The documentary does a wonderful job of capturing the atmosphere of the city at the time. We get the sights and sounds of the day. We see a bleak urban landscape, and occasionally some late 80s hip-hop to go with the soliloquys of the various people involved and others who studied the case. We also see many headlines and snippets of newspaper articles, including editorials damning the boys to the lowest realms of hell. For me, this is a harsh reminder of how fractured and volatile a place New York was.

The boys are all grown now and the ordeal still brings tears to their eyes. The all speak about it with unbridled passion, this being their first reach chance to tell their side of the story. Surprisingly, for guys who had a large chunk of their formative years taken away, they come across as bright, reasonable, and mostly articulate men. None of them exhibit the bitterness they might be expected to harbor. Granted, they have now had some time to cope with it, but it’s still commendable. Their family members alo shed a few tears. Thankfully, these eventually become tears of joy and/or relief as things finally turn in their favor fourteen years later.

The one thing this movie lacks is something it could never have. From archived footage, we get news clips of then New York City Mayor Ed Koch, prosecuting attorneys Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, plus various police officers involved in the original investigation. Of these people, all but Koch declined to appear currently. He is the only person interviewed for this documentary on record proclaiming the guilt of these kids back in 1989. Even knowing the facts as we know them today, he is still reluctant to say he was wrong. However, give the man credit. He shows up and speaks about how the entire thing played out from his vantage point in the mayor’s office. Still, he was never actually a part of the proceedings. How could he be? He had a city to run. Many of the people who were involved still have much to lose by an admission of wrong-doing and/or negligence. I fully understand why the would refuse to appear in such a film. That doesn’t stop me from badly wanting to see them and hear them speak to the matter at hand.

The Central Park Five is a movie that reveals a certain truth. That truth is that guilt and innocence are easily manipulated perceptions. Perception gives us the ability to ignore facts. After all, as the old saying goes, perception is reality. On a more grounded level, it is a horrifying tale about gross abuses of power, both illegal and incompetent police work, mob mentality and racism. It details a justice system run amok, one swift to punish those perceived as offenders and hesitant to correct itself when proven wrong, if it does at all. The scariest part of all this, the part left unsaid, is that we know similar things have happened in other cases and continues to happen. Powerful does not even begin to describe this movie.

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