Central Park 5– Movie Review
As I was on the subway home last night, a big group of clean-cut high school boys got on at one stop. They were damn annoying: loud, inconsiderate, and frankly smelly. But none of this is criminal. Which made it all the more unsettling to look at the five men profiled in Central Park 5- similarly normal kids who lost their youths and freedom as scapegoats for a terrible crime.
The new documentary from Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and her husband (and Burns film editor) David McMahon, centers around the infamous Central Park jogger case. In April 1989, New York City was rocked by the rape and near murder of a white female jogger in Central Park. The city’s crime had been escalating for decades, worsened by the crack epidemic and racial tensions tearing through the city. When the supposedly safe enclave of the park was violated, public outcry was enormous, and it was all pinned on five black and Hispanic teens- Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam- who had been in the park that night with a group of admittedly troublemaking boys. The directors document the ensuing failures of the police, prosecutors, media, and even the boys’ families in exposing the flimsy case and coerced confessions that resulted in each man spending multiple years in prison. (Ultimately, a serial rapist who had worked in the Upper East Side confessed to the jogger case, which was confirmed by DNA evidence and the details of his confession.)
If anything, the directors could be faulted for having too many engaging perspectives to investigate. Despite the movie’s two-hour run time, I was still left wanting to know more about how each individual institution made this happen. I was particular shocked and saddened by the role of the media. Tabloids like the Post and the Daily News condemned the young men in banner headlines, continued to demonize them even after the convicted men had been exonerated by DNA evidence, and still pass judgement on alleged criminals to this day.
The Police and DAs offices showed similar lacks of conscience, at least as far as the movie showed. Ed Koch is interviewed, but is not shown addressing his outrageous denunciation of the suspects before their trial while he was mayor of New York. And in one of the most frank and telling moments of the film, Rev. Calvin Butts said that even the black community was complicit. He explains that black-on-black crime was terrible at the time, so no one had a problem believing that young black and Hispanic men could do this.
Artistically, the film does not distinguish itself much, composed mostly of interviews to the camera, archival footage, and panning over photos. This does however highlight the impact of the source material. The opening moments of the videotaped confession of one of the young men (Wise) looked like a tragic, warped television commercial: a handsome teen with a high top fade and a large medallion of the African continent around his neck sits at a school desk, looking exhausted and confused. From off camera someone hands him… a Pepsi, it’s logo facing squarely at the camera. He looks relieved beyond belief, but doesn’t start to drink before his interrogation begins. This was the movie in a nutshell: a normal kid thrust into a nightmare of the real world.
Ken Burns’ earlier work often follows a whole arc that is optimistic, even if it is not entirely true (“The Civil War ultimately made us a united people”). But no such optimism is here. A historian interviewed in the film offers that maybe there is no take-away available. “We are bad people,” he says, suggesting that we will not learn from this, but perhaps we can gird our institutions against our own badness.
Did you see Central Park 5? What did you think?