Miscarriage of Justice Befalls ‘The Central Park Five’

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CHICAGO – It takes a provocative subject to capture the attention of famous documentarian Ken Burns. There are few things more provocative than the story of “The Central Park Five.” Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and son-in-law David McMahon were co-directors for this exploration of justice denied.

“The Central Park Five” is the true story of five teenage boys in New York City, circa 1989. They are fooling around late at night in Central Park on April 19th of that year, and find themselves arrested for the sexual assault of a female jogger within the park. The film breaks down the case, the prosecution of the boys and their unjust incarceration afterward. The process of the teenagers’ trials in the documentary has larger themes of race, media exploitation and authoritarian fear mongering, and the three writer/co-directors break down the case to expose the sheer injustice of the prosecution, and how fear of the other yet again punishes the innocent. This is a magnifying glass on a racial profiling incident 23 years ago, but echoes through the canyons of those two decades back to now.

Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam were New York City teenagers in the Spring of 1989. While hanging out in Central Park on the night of April 19th, they are chased and brought in for questioning by the police. There has been an assault on a female jogger, a white investment banker living in the city, and the boys are coerced into becoming the prime suspects. With rights and the rule of law thrown out the window, they become scapegoats for a city paranoid about being under “siege,” racially judged for the color of their skin and railroaded into a guilty verdict replete with weak due process.

The Central Park Five
Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam are ‘The Central Park Five’
Photo credit: Sundance Selects

The story of the boys is broken down into the step by step events of the era, with the now grown men speaking about their trials. It had been proven after many years of their unjust jail time that another man committed the crime, but it is too late to regain their lost youth. That theft of time and reputation is a blight upon the New York City legal system, but the atmosphere of the initial trial was manipulated further by a compliant press, who condemned and stereotyped five scared teenage boys.

The Ken Burns technique of expansive, precise storytelling highlights the step-by-step hell that the Five had to endure. It is inconceivable, given how the events took place, that these boys were even considered for arrest in relationship to the attack. It was fear, especially the fear of the police, that coerced the confessions – which between the boys did not match – through techniques used mainly for prisoners of war. The boys were lied to, psychologically tortured and manipulated by a legal system that they didn’t understand. And finally after the convictions were rescinded, and the inevitable lawsuits were filed, New York City had the temerity to stick to their guns regarding what transpired.

Four of the Five make appearances in the documentary, plus family members that were involved when they were arrested. What really becomes apparent in how the Burns team expresses the story, is that these boys and their families were bamboozled by the legal system, which made promises to them all the way up to the trial, but used only the non-matching confessions to send them away. Meanwhile, the real killer was still at large, miles away from the madness of the persons taking the rap for his crime.

It was very interesting to see how immature the press was in covering the story. There were very few newspapers willing to look at the situation objectively, when it came to five boys of color. As rap music was peaking at the time, terms from the songs like “wilding” crept its way into newspaper headlines. Like the previous Jim Crow era, the way to keep the minority down was to mischaracterize them as less than human. Not only does this destroy public perception of the case, but it creates a climate of fear that doesn’t exist, a insidious form of group think.

The Central Park Five
Courtroom Drawing from the Trial of ‘The Central Park Five’
Photo credit: Sundance Selects

HollywoodChicago.com interviewed the entire directorial team, Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon. Their tenacity in getting this story right has resulted in New York City suing them for their interview footage and production notes. Suing them for telling the truth, to avoid embarrassment for the officials and city that got it wrong 23 years ago. “Alice Through the Looking Glass” has nothing on bureaucrats trying to cover their ass.

As for the Central Five themselves, we can never know what it is like to stand in their shoes after being cheated by the system, vilified by the press and thrown into prison for a crime they didn’t commit. May the karma pendulum swing, and may the perpetrators who coerced and the city who prosecuted atone for their sins.

“The Central Park Five” continues its limited release in Chicago on December 7th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Written and directed by David McMahon, Sarah Burns and Ken Burns. Not Rated.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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