In 1989 a white woman was brutally beaten and raped in New York City’s Central Park. The NYPD quickly arrested five young men - four black and one Hispanic - who had been in the park that night, harassing and mugging passerby. The young men, ages 14 to 16, were held for hours upon hours and aggressively questioned. Over the course of the questioning they confessed to the crime. Despite police regulations intended to protect minors, their names were released to the press. Every newspaper and TV station proclaimed their guilt from the very beginning. New York, in the grip of a explosive racial tension and a crime wave, turned into one giant lynch mob.
Their taped confessions were enough to get the five sent to prison. But they didn’t do it. Every prisoner claims their innocence, but the Central Park Five were truly, completely and utterly innocent. They weren’t even particularly bad kids. They were frightened, confused and exhausted when the police tricked them into confessing.
The Central Park Five makes no bones about being objective. It’s a furious documentary, a rousing bit of agitprop that can make even the most staid lover of the system cry ‘Fuck the police!’ And it does all of that relying only on the facts and extensive interviews with the wounded men, still dealing with the fallout of the false convictions that cost them so much of their lives.
The film, directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, is meticulous. It sets the stage of New York City in 1989, the year of Do The Right Thing. It makes no bones about what a group of 30 boys was doing in the park that night - causing serious mischief and committing crimes. It carefully explains the crummy police work that went into linking the so-called ‘wilding’ that happened that night with the rape of the jogger. And each step of the way it makes our blood boil, inciting righteous anger at a system broken in fundamental ways. A system rendered inherently racist and classist.
But the film’s real weapon is the Five themselves. They all participate in interviews (although one of them, attempting to start a new life, isn’t filmed), and they all tell their side of the story in measured, reasonable, grieving tones. The lack of anger, the absence of hatred, is moving beyond words. To see those dealt serious injustice react without malice is to get an understanding of sainthood. These men are all damaged, deeply, but the damage hasn’t made them bad people.
I found myself alternating between rage and tears. At one point something became stunningly clear to me: I was the same age as these boys in 1989. I lived in New York City and I followed the case in the Daily News every morning; the faces of the Central Park Five are burned forever in my memory, just as clearly as the faces of my schoolmates. But all during the initial hoopla and the trials it never occurred to me that these boys were exactly my age. The media made them out to be monsters, animals, the basest of beasts, robbing them of any humanity. There was no way I could identify with them, ever really understand that we were, in so many ways, the same.
We were the same in some ways but different in other, more cardinal ways. For one, I was white. For another, while I was fairly poor, I wasn’t living in northern Manhattan, up in Harlem. My family’s economic problems didn’t make me an automatic crime suspect. The nights I ran wild in the streets of Queens, breaking windows and throwing rocks at cars, didn’t make the police assume I had gang raped and almost beaten someone to death.
The Central Park Five doesn’t shy from the basic racial motivations behind the persecution of these kids. Weeks before the Central Park Jogger rape, a woman had been raped and thrown from a rooftop in Brooklyn... but she was black, as was her assailant. That crime rated a sidebar in the paper. The Jogger case was the crime of the century - its status as such attested to by then-Mayor Ed Koch and then-Governor Mario Cuomo. Blacks can do what they want to blacks, was the unspoken message, but when they mess with whites it gets crazy.
Ten years ago the real rapist stepped forward and confessed. DNA evidence proved that he was telling the truth. Perhaps worse than the fact that five lives were ruined by not getting the real culprit is the fact that this guy was a serial rapist and murderer - other victims could have been spared had the NYPD done their job. The case of the Central Park Five is so twisted that this scumbag, who confessed after seeing how badly his crime had screwed up someone else’s life, comes across as more heroic than the prosecutors of the original case, who must have known they had the wrong kids. The confessions didn’t match each other, they didn’t match the details of the crime known to police, and none of the kids had DNA that matched what was found on the scene. The police and prosecutors involved in the case were the real monsters, and I walked out of the movie hoping every day is filled with pain and guilt for them. I doubt it is, though.
The Central Park Five isn’t just a film about a travesty of justice that happened twenty years ago. It’s a cautionary tale for every crime story that becomes a media frenzy. There was no one in New York City who doubted the guilt of these kids. We saw their confessions playing on the nightly news! But it was all wrong. And one day soon the same thing will happen, and it will be all wrong again. The Five were eventually exonerated, and their convictions stricken from the record, but that received almost none of the coverage of their initial trials. I know New Yorkers who had no clue these kids were cleared in 2002.
The Central Park Five is the sort of social justice documentary that forever changes your view of the world. It’s a powerful, moving, infuriating experience. Everyone should see this movie.