Title: The Central Park Five
Directors: Sara Burns, David McMahon and Ken Burns
Starring: Antron McCray (Voice Over Interviews Only), Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam
The main concern of many Americans today is the recession that has lasted over four years and the sense of hopelessness and fear of not being able to get a job. This sense of an economic crisis also split people into the groups of the extremely poor and the excessively rich in New York City in the 1980s, combining the fiscal problem with the rise of STDs, drugs, violence and racial tension that were exasperated the police brutality against minorities in particular. The dangerous escalation of police violence against youth minorities culminated with the Central Park Five jogger case, which is emotionally featured in the new documentary ‘The Central Park Five,’ which is now playing in selected theaters.
‘The Central Park Five’ follows the five New York minority male teenagers, including four black and one Latino, who were arrested and charged with brutally attacking and raping a white female jogger in Central Park on April 20, 1989. Since the police department was cracking down on crime in New York in the 1980s, and minority youths were often blamed for committing illegal activity, the boys were wrongly pressured into giving false confessions. The boys were all later convicted and spent several years in prison during the 1990s, despite the lack of physical evidence against them and their later denials they had nothing to do with the case.
The five boys-Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam, who became know as the Central Park Five-were later exonerated of the assault and rape of the victim, Trisha Meili. Matias Reyes, who was serving a life sentence on unrelated charges, confessed to the crime, and his DNA was matched to the physical evidence in the case. New York State Supreme Court judge Charles J. Trejada overturned the convictions of the Central Park Five in late 2002 as a result.
While Meili was always the obvious and heartbreaking victim in the case, particularly since she had to continuously relive her horrid experience during the five suspects’ trials, the boys were also presented as unfortunate victims of racism in the documentary. Sara Burns, who wrote the book ‘The Central Park Five’ is based on, gave an emotional, riveting look into the unfair persecution of the five boys with her co-directors and co-screenwriters, her father, David McMahon, and her husband, Ken Burns. The three gave a detailed insight into the injustice committed against McCray, Richardson, Santana, Wise and Salaam by the police, who were only interested in obtaining a speedy resolution to the crime, instead of an accurate one.
Through photographs and statements given by the Central Park Five featured throughout the documentary, the filmmakers humanized the boys by chronicling each of their personal lives, before, during and after the attack and trials. McCray and Richardson, for example, discussed how their parents were perceived as being weak by the police during the investigation and trial, leading officers to easily spin evidence and public opinion against the boys. With police, including prosecutors Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, who were leading the trials, continuing to maintain that the Central Park Five had some involvement in the case, the former suspects are shown to still be struggling with the emotional tolls of the accusations, even ten years after their exoneration.
The filmmakers also included statements by, and information about, people who conversely always believed in, and protected, the boys’ innocence. Such supporters included Detective John Haligan and former New York Daily News writer Natalie Byfield, who reported on the crime and is now the executive director of the Black Media Foundation. Both brought in the moral questioning of why McCray, Richardson, Santana, Wise and Salaam were the only ones considered to be suspects in the case. Byfield also smartly drew attention to the fact that the Central Park Five case received so much media coverage, because the suspects were minorities and the victim was white. That clouded the public’s views on crime in New York at the time, which was still feeling the effects of several decades of economic and racial oppression.
‘The Central Park Five’ would have benefited from featuring interviews from some of the police and prosecutors in the case, to show a more balanced, unbiased look at the case. While the five men do deserve their time to express their rightful outrage at the legal and moral injustices committed against them at such a young age, the documentary at times feels as though it’s the Burns’ and McMahon’s propagandic views on the case. The filmmakers at times only speculated on the motivations behind the police, and generalized that the detectives and prosecutors only pursued the case so heavily because they wanted to prosecute minority youths. While it’s understandable why the police didn’t want to contribute to the film, as their wrongdoings were proven with the exoneration, at least providing some information on their motivations would have made the movie more balanced.
With tensions and resentments between races still a large conflict in America’s social atmosphere, and a major driving force in keeping ethnicities separated, ‘The Central Park Five’ is a perfect example of how and why the different races try to persecute and suppress each other. McCray, Richardson, Santana, Wise and Salaam all gave heart-breaking recollections of how one racially-motivated false accusation against them can not only change their lives, but also how different races can learn to become more accepting of others. While the documentary mainly focuses on the suspects’ actions and emotions, featuring in-depth commentary from the police would have made the movie more balanced, and offered more insight into everyone’s motivations in the case.
Written by: Karen Benardello