Film Review – The Central Park Five
Mob mentality is a very real and very scary thing. The truth doesn’t matter; if enough people believe the same thing— regardless of its accuracy—it will drown out everything else. This is a horrific idea, even more disturbing given that it is still rampant in today’s society. How often do we read the news, watch TV, hear what other people are saying, and already come to a conclusion before we even know the facts? We don’t know who is right or wrong; we just know the people on one side of the room are celebrated as heroes and the other side demonized as villains. In the provocative new documentary The Central Park Five (2012), filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon examine a disturbing case of civil injustice inflamed by racial tension, media intensity, and public outrage.
In April 1989, a young white woman was jogging along in New York City’s Central Park. Without warning, she was ambushed, beaten, raped, and left for dead. Reports indicate that she was unconscious for days, and did not physically recover until much later. Five teenagers of black and Latino ethnicities (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam) were arrested for the crime. Media outlets jumped all over the case. National news channels ran ongoing stories, and newspapers printed big, bold headlines with the words “WILDLINGS,” and “THE WOLF PACK.” While there was no physical evidence or eye-witnesses to incriminate them, what the prosecutors did have were written and videotaped confessions from the five suspects. Why would they give confessions, if they would claim innocence afterward? Because the testimonies were coerced by authorities after over thirteen hours of aggressive interrogation.
Imagine that: being a young kid thrown into a situation you’ve never been in before, with adult strangers yelling in your face to give them what they want. Most young people would say anything just to get out of it. We’ve seen this story before, most famously in the Paradise Lost films. But here, there seems to be a deeper cut—a much more inciting way the events unfold. This has to do with the fact that the suspects were low-income people of color, while the victim was a white woman from the upper class. Would the media have covered the story with the same level of vigor if the victim were a black woman from the projects? In one of the more upsetting scenes, we learn of another woman (who was black and from a poor background) who was beaten and thrown off the roof of a building around the same time. The story didn’t get more than a tiny blurb tucked away in the back pages of the newspapers.
There was a lump in my throat that grew larger as I watched the movie. It wasn’t of sadness, but of anger. Anger that a justice system would be so eager to find a culprit to place the blame on, and at the national outcry that predetermined the fates of the teens. We live in a time where civil rights and equalities have progressed by leaps and bounds, but that doesn’t mean prejudice isn’t present; it’s just not as pronounced. What happened here is still happening today.
The filmmakers allow details to unfold naturally, filling scenes with video footage and news clips from the time, all narrated by the alleged criminals (now adults). Prosecutors, media outlets, and authorities refused to give interviews for the documentary, and perhaps that works as a benefit. So many recordings and written reports frame just how ludicrous the entire legal process was, painting the suspects as animalistic thugs. Here, we are given the opportunity to experience it from the point of view of the kids, because clearly no one was hearing what they had to say back then.
Thirteen years. That’s how long it took before authorities found the real assailant (through a detailed confession) and freed those falsely imprisoned. But by the then, the damage was already done. These people lost their childhoods, and were forced to grow up amongst hardened criminals who all believed them to be rapists. Let’s be clear: what happened to the victim was a terrible, terrible thing, and should not be overlooked or slighted in the least. But what makes The Central Park Five’s story so troubling is that, because of a hasty investigation and public pressure to close the case, the wrong people were punished for it. The real person responsible walked around as a free man for nearly a decade. Who knows what other terrible crimes could have been prevented if he were caught right from the very beginning? This is an affecting documentary that stirs the emotions, because it takes a mirror and places it directly in front of us as a people. It shows us the innate divisions between race and class, while painfully calling for those divisions to be erased.
Final Grade: A