The Central Park Five: Lynching Was Alive and Well in 1980s NYC 

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The Central Park Five
Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon

It’s been a good year for cautionary tales about how easy it is for our criminal justice system to be abused—and abusive. The House I Live In portrays our “war on drugs” as little more than a handy way of sentencing poor and/or black people to economic irrelevance by funneling them into prisons. Better This World introduces us to two idealistic young men who came under government observation after protesting a Republican convention and wound up convicted of an act of terrorism cooked up by the FBI informant who testified against them. The gentle subject of If a Tree Falls was accused of terrorism, too, for attacks on private property that were not only engineered to make sure nobody got hurt but committed with the sole intent of protecting the environment. And the good people of Carthage, Texas, refused to convict their neighbor Bernie Tiede of murder in Bernie, a gentle farce based on a true story, not because they didn’t think he did it but because, for cat’s sake, everybody loves Bernie, and who ever had any use for that mean old Miz Nugent he shot, no doubt for good reason?

But none of these will hit as close to home for New Yorkers as The Central Park Five, a documentary about the legal lynching of five teenage boys that followed the rape and near-murder of a jogger in northern Central Park in the spring of 1989. Franchise documentarian Ken Burns is listed first among the movie’s three co-directors/writers/producers, but this has a much more urgent, overtly political feel than the historical documentaries usually associated with him—with their calm, omniscient narrators and their stately pans and zooms. That may be because the history covered here is so recent, but it’s probably because the idea for the story originated with Burns’s daughter and cocreator Sarah Burns, who published a book on it last year. (Her husband, David McMahon, is the team's third member.)

The five of the title are Antron McCray, Kevin Williamson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise (then known as Kharey Wise), five African American and Puerto Rican teenagers who were coerced into confessing to the rape. All five steadfastly maintained their innocence afterward, and a DNA test showed no match between any of them and the crime scene, but the confessions that they say they were told would be their tickets to a quick return home turned out to be just the opposite.

As DA Robert Morgenthau wrote more than a decade later, when his office reopened the case and vacated the convictions after a serial rapist who happened to meet up with Korey Wise in prison had an attack of conscience and confessed to the crime, “The accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime... And some of what they said was simply contrary to established fact.” But the media never questioned the confessions, simply piling on with the assumption that all five were guilty as charged. Practically the whole city—including then-Mayor Ed Koch—fell in step, calling for the boys’ conviction or worse (Donald Trump mounted a campaign to bring back the death penalty for them). One lone juror held out for days in the first of the two trials, convinced that detectives had lied on the stand and suspicious of the so-called confessions, but he finally surrendered and gave his fellow jurors the conviction they were clamoring for, much as the boys themselves eventually went along with their interrogators and signed confessions they knew to be false.

In treating the boys like a rampaging “wolf pack,” as one tabloid headline put it, the accusers become what they feared, mobbing up to go after the boys and their families with an often vicious intensity, although photos of the five sheltered, well brought-up young men and reminiscences of their lives before detention make it clear that when Antron’s lawyer says his client was “the exact opposite of the way he was portrayed in the news,” he is speaking for at least four of the five. Even Wise, the only one of the four who had been in any kind of trouble before the arrest, seemed sweet and innocent, if anything younger than his years. “I was 16 and I felt like I was about 12,” he says of himself at the time of his arrest.

The well-chosen parade of talking heads includes journalists, historians, and a social psychologist as well as four of the five defendants (Antron talks too, but did not want to be seen on camera). Their methodical recounting of the arrests and their aftermath as experienced by The Five and their families (none of the prosecutors or police involved would talk to the filmmakers) highlights the blind cruelty of that rabid, widespread certainty. Photo montages and archival news footage also provide context, anatomizing the violence, volatility, and demonization of young black men that infected the city in the 80s, and reminding us of our nation’s long history of lynching black men for imagined crimes against white women. That long view of history—a Burns family specialty—gives this sad, infuriating story the depth and despair of tragedy.

Opens November 23

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