[Review] – The Central Park Five

9 Dec

The Central Park Five

Title: The Central Park Five
Year: 2012
Directors: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon
Starring: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 119 min
IMDb Rating: 6.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Metacritic: 79

The Central Park Five is a family documentary. By that I mean that it was co-directed by Sarah Burns, her husband David McMahon and her father, the great documentarian Ken Burns, who’s had two of his documentaries go up for Oscars. Unfortunately, the always mind-bogglingly dumb in its decisions documentary branch of the Academy doesn’t even have this riveting new film of his on their shortlist for this year’s nominations. Still, you still have to give these people props for bringing this story to us, and considering it just won Best Non-Fiction Film from the New York Film Critics it’s not as though it’s going to be short on awards. Oscar’s missing out.

The story it tells is that of the Central Park Jogger case from back in 1989, when five young men, four of them black and one Latino, were charged and convicted for brutally attacking and raping a caucasian female who was jogging in New York’s iconic park. Over 3’000 rapes were reported in New York City that year but this one really got the attention of the media and the world; a 28-year-old woman raped and beaten almost to death, found four hours later suffering from hypothermia, severe blood loss, her left eye actually removed from its socket from the beatings her skull had received. People were obviously outraged and they wanted the people responsible found and convicted.

Those five young men, who were part of gangs who assaulted strangers, an activity they called “wilding”, were charged, all of them giving some kind of confession and implicating the others. Within weeks, however, they retracted their statements, saying they had been intimated and lied to by the police in order to elicit false confessions from them. Which was actually true, the police had told one of the five kids, after he was reluctant to confess, that his prints had been found at the scene; that was a lie, but it still got him to confess to a crime he didn’t commit.

They served their time, even though the case against them was entirely built around those confessions and there was no DNA tying them to the crime, in fact the DNA that was processed was not theirs at all. Years in prison were served, their entire sentences, only to have another unrelated man, a convicted rapist and murderer serving a life sentence himself, come out in 2002 and confess to the crime saying he acted alone. The DNA was an absolute match. The Central Park five were vacated of their convictions, their names cleared of those crimes, them not again having to register as sex offenders. But, still, they had done time for a crime they didn’t commit.

I’ve spent three paragraphs detailing the story because it’s important to know it and because it’s why The Central Park Five exists at all, to give this story of disgusting injustice the attention it deserves. It’s really a terrific documentary, an incendiary one that really gets you going and makes you feel uneasy at times because, you may just realize, this says a lot about us. Not just about the kind of society we were over 20 years ago, but the one we still are. It’s just a tremendously patient documentary in its incisiveness, and it works so well because of just that.

The film really goes into great details of this ghastly miscarriage of justice. It explores tremendously the issues of why the boys signed confessions even though they didn’t do it and it explores why people believed they did it. We get a really powerful moment with the one member of the jury who believed the boys were innocent, but who still ended up giving a “guilty” verdict. The words used to explain that reasoning are something like: “I just went along with it because I was wiped out”.

That’s pretty much what explains the actions of everyone here: people just went along with it because they were tired. The NYPD went along with it because they were tired of people pressuring them to find out the responsible party, the jury went with it because they were tired of sitting there hearing the evidence (or lack thereof), the kids went with it and signed confessions because they were being purposefully confused and grilled into exhaustion by the police.

It’s really harsh stuff to realize that, in a system in which supposedly one’s innocent until proven otherwise, these kids had lost their trial before it even started, confessions having been extracted from them through psychological abuse. A wrong verdict was given, yes, but it was the popular one, the one that sold most papers, the one that satisfied the masses.

What’s most telling of how we are as a society is that if you mention this case to people many will know exactly what you’re talking about, and remember how outraged they were at the time, how New York City with the high crime rates had this feeling of fear over it constantly. They will tell you all that, they’ll know a lot of the details of the crime, but many of them probably won’t know that the five were ultimately wrongfully convicted and their names sponged clean, because that story didn’t get nearly as much press time. That’s one of the big things that I took out of this movie. Take what you may, though, just make sure you give this one a chance, it’s a compelling watch.

Grade: A-


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