The Central Park Five -- Clear-Sighted Portrait of Injustice

                            Ken Burns' inflammatory and investigative documentary, "The Central Park Five" (2012) analysis the miscarriage of justice in the 1989 “Central Park jogger” case. A young investment banker (Trisha Meili) was beaten, raped and left for dead in the early morning hours of April 20, 1989. She survived eventually but lay comatose for several weeks and mercifully not retaining the memory of the attack. The 1980's was said to be an era of crime and race paranoia in New York. This documentary explains why black and latino teenagers were wrongly convicted in the jogger case (despite a lack of physical evidence) and how American society or justice system carries out institutionalized racism. 

                             The documentary commences by giving the backdrop of New York in 1980's, where the racially motivated fear gripped the city. The economy was sliding down, drugs usage and AIDS were on the rise. So, the brutal beating and rape of the jogger was said to have sparked the biggest tabloid frenzy and set off unexpressed racial tensions. Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam -- the five black and Latino youths, between ages 14 and 16, was forced by the police into confessing to the assault.

                               The five teenagers served their sentences ranging from seven to thirteen years, before they were finally acquitted in 2002 when a jailhouse confession by a serial rapist and murderer, complete with corroborating DNA evidence, resulted in their sentences being overturned. Director Ken Burns says that, "In so many films that I've done, short-sightedness is one of the major human themes. We live for the moment. No one's willing to do the necessary rolling up the sleeves until the catastrophe happens." The five teenage alleged perpetrators and their short-sightedness resulted to a coerced confession, where each of them implicated one another in a group assault because they were promised leniency if they snitched.

                               By the time, we see the videotaped interview/interrogation of Korey Wise by the District Attorney, we know that each of the youngsters has confessed to the crime and that the confessions were made under duress and were false. The boys, who are now in their 30's separately relives that moment in the documentary. All of them were in the park -- in April 19, 1989 -- in a group of 30 or so boys (with a group of troublemakers), but they were in an area of the park some distance from where Trisha Meili, the jogger, was assaulted. 

                                The frenzied media named the boys guilty immediately after the confessions. The media alarmed the public by calling the roving groups of African American teens as "Wolf-packs." The media hysteria and the public outrage is seen as the modern-day equivalent of a lynching for defendants. "Central Park Five" raises many questions: why didn’t any parent speak up against the police? Most of them were in the room during the confession sessions and why did no one, parent or child, call a lawyer before it was too late? They (the boys) had been doing all that yessing because they thought it would get them out of trouble. It explains that people are sometimes afraid and naive. But, the larger, universal questions are: Why are we so fast to forget our own human infirmity when others’ exemption is at stake? And why are we so uncoerced to throw out the presumption of innocence, so ready to believe the police and so abhor accepting that they sometimes do coerce the weak and the naive? 

                                  The idea for this documentary came from the internship that Sarah Burns (Ken Burns' daughter) took with a firm in 2003. The law firm prepared a lawsuit by the Five against the city of New York (the lawsuits, mentioned only briefly in the film, still remain unresolved). This resulted in a book titled “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding.” Sarah and her husband David McMahon are the co-directors, who have assembled a remarkable array of footage and photographs. Ken Burns is an ambitious documentary film-maker, who gives us the sweeping chunks of the American experience.

David MacMahon, Sarah and Ken Burns
                                The team of directors succeeds in painting a vivid picture of a racially and economically divided city, but at the same time, they shine a too-dim light on the violence that preceded the rape, and they virtually ignore the jogger, who was indeed randomly assaulted by someone of a different race. The documentary never clearly explains exactly what the boys were doing in the park that night, or whether they may have participated in other random attacks. We see the grown men providing very few details about their youthful romp in Central Park. 

                                  In "The Central Park Five", historian Craig Steven Wilder says that: "Rather than tying [the case] up in a bow and thinking that there was something we can take away from it, and that we'll be better people, I think what we really need to realize is that we're not very good people." That's an unavoidable and troubling statement in this gripping documentary about denied justice.


The Central Park Five -- IMDb


Khoty Mathur said...

"No one's willing to do the necessary rolling up the sleeves until the catastrophe happens," says Ken Burns. I have to add that we are actively taught to keep away from controversy, not get involved and "stay out of trouble" in India because our leaders threaten, co-erce, take sides, subvert justice etc.

Great review, Arun. On my "to watch" list.

Arun Kumar said...

@ KayEm, Thanks for the comment. Yeah, we (Indians) are taught from childhood to keep away from controversy. The justice system is also the most corrupted. Eventually the truth came out in the case of "Central Park Five" and they made a documentary. In India, there are many falsely accused innocents, who are in jail, without even getting judgements. And, a democratic country like India will never allow documentaries like these to be made.

Unknown said...

True, but real,that countries like India will never allow documentaries like these to be made. I like the intensity of the music in this trailer.

Arun Kumar said...

@ Simon Rutar, Thanks for the comment. Keep visiting the blog.