The Central Park Five (Burns, Burns, and McMahon)

The most depressing thing about The Central Park Five, for me, was its only hazy familiarity. In 1989 I would have been twenty-three, a year out of undergraduate university studies, newly married, heading to a new location so that my wife could attend graduate school. I vaguely remember that there was a Central Park jogger who was raped and beaten, but I honestly couldn’t remember a trial much less an exoneration.

Today I work as at a university, and it is customary each year to remind ourselves of the years in which our students were born and lament the more recent current events about which they claim lack of knowledge. Sometimes this is done to imply that young people today are less engaged in the world around them then we think we were, that they are more apt to play video games and live in a Facebook bubble. While the documentary itself laments the fact that arrests and trials are publicized to a far greater degree than corrections of the record, it tends to lay that fact on members of the media not wanting to admit they made a mistake. I am sure they don’t. None of us do. I suppose that affects why we are so indifferent to stories about how we bought in to narratives created by other people that turned out to be more self-serving than truth seeking.

The second most depressing thing about The Central Park Five is how easily that master narrative–the one that was the foundation for sending five young men to prison–was unraveled and disproved once an alternate suspect emerged. We are conditioned by movies, I think, to expect such miscarriages of justice to be the product of rare and exceptional coincidences. It is easier to think of these young men as victims of cruel twists of fate rather than the slothful indifference of an audience that cared more that someone be held accountable than that the someone be the guilty party. But questions were there from the start. (One juror interviewed admits to being troubled by inconsistencies in the case and states he finally changed his verdict from “not guilty” to “guilty” because of being harangued by fellow jury members and a desire to go home–the same motivation, ironically, that the five give for having made a false confession.) DNA evidence pointing to another suspect was present and matched the suspect in another series of rapes.

This new documentary by visual historian Ken Burns is a no-frills, no-nonsense affair, relying heavily on interviews with the five men whose convictions have now been overturned. (One declined to be shown on camera and is heard only through voice-overs.) What surprised me was how sad and somber they were. Perhaps, I too, have bought into the stereotype of the “angry” minority. Certainly if anyone, white, black or Puerto Rican, had legitimate cause to be angry, these men do. Yet their demeanor is almost mournful, as though they are going through PTSD or aching for the children they once were and how naive those children were about the realities of how the world works.

If there is a slight weakness to the film, it may be the lack of a particular target to blame. It is easy enough to rail against the “system” or a culture of racial animus, but what blame there may be gets distributed a bit too broadly. Nods are made in the direction of culpability–a clip of Donald Trump talking about hate and taking out an ad advocating for the death penalty is shown, a reminder is given that a prosecutor advanced in her career for getting a conviction, a journalist is shown saying he wished he had been more skeptical–but once notification is given that no police or representatives of the prosecution will be interviewed for the film, it is evident that what we will get is a lament for a past injustice, not an attempt to question how future, similar injustices could be prevented.

Maybe they can’t. Maybe we are part of a society too entrenched in our fears, prejudices, and assumptions, to be shaken out of them by even the most blatant examples of how our inner demons too often defeat our better angels. Okay, I take back my previous assertion; that my be the most depressing thought prompted by a sad yet important documentary.

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