In 1989 five black teenage boys were convicted of raping a white woman while she was jogging at night in Central Park in New York. Their trial achieved national attention, and the boys were put in jail for the maximum time allowed to juvenile offenders. But the case was a farce, the boys were innocent, and in 2001, a man came forward and admitted his guilt. The boys, now grown, have since been cleared of all charges, but the state of New York has not recognized their own wrong doing by way of compensation.
The documentary “The Central Park Five” does so much more than exonerate these five people. It holds a scathing light up to our system of justice and our society.
“The Central Park Five” screened Sunday at the Chicago International Film Festival and was followed by a brief Q&A with the directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon, as well as one of the five subjects involved in the case, Raymond Santana. The three of them explained how they are still fighting, how this film has prompted New York State to subpoena the film’s footage to further prolong the Five’s deserved trial and how this film must be seen to allow society to reconsider their human nature. The film opens in Chicago in December at the Music Box.
The film starts by animating 1980s New York, a place filled with rampant racism and crime, with the same anger and frustration as “Do the Right Thing.” Hatred, death, violence and drugs were a part of daily life. “We were supposed to be afraid,” one historian says. “It would’ve been irrational to not be.”
In this town, society had dictated unspoken safe havens. Central Park was one of them. For this to have happened there changed the realm of our mental security, and society needed a way to rationalize this intrusion.
We assigned a label to the crime, “Wilding,” to help define this act of aggression. We diverted to defensive instincts, calling for the Death Penalty and demanding revenge in the way we did in the time of Jim Crow laws. We ignored evidence and rationality because we so believed in our outrage. This was not a war for justice but a fight for our subconscious peace of mind.
Directors Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon make a point to recreate all the details of the case with vivid accuracy. By splicing together and even repeating similar points by each of the five men interviewed, we get a broad picture of the events of those days, one even more stirring thanks to the metaphorical images on display here.
It shows how the police interrogation system is flawed. It shows how the news media behaved with massive oversight. It shows how a parole board can doom the innocent.
But more importantly, “The Central Park Five” gets at the human nature that caused these kids to condemn themselves, that caused society to persecute them with vitriol and that still prevents the police force from admitting their wrong doing.
For all these people, they too were acting out of defense and confusion. They confessed because they were told it would help. They just wanted to go home. They had no clue of the severity of their actions. After full days of interrogation, they caved. They admitted to something they did not believe in because the broader society did. The culture has enabled an inability for them to succeed.
One kid, Korey Wise, displayed the worst case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the cops came for his friend Yusef Salaam, they said his own name was not on the list, but he could come down to the precinct if he wanted to stay with his friend. Because he was 16, he got upwards of 25 years in prison.
When the film turns to the trial, it speaks to Juror #5. He kept the jury sequestered for days because he didn’t believe their guilt with a lack of hard evidence. Eventually he too caved under the pressure of the other jurors who had enough in seeing the video confessions. He just wanted to go home.
Upon seeing this film I questioned my own actions. When was I so convinced of something that I called for blood? What did I miss and could not be told out of my own rage? For me to say the cops should now be held responsible misses the film’s point, that we look for an easy villain, a scapegoat, to put our own mind at ease. Justice is more complex than that.
It’s hard to call “The Central Park Five” inspirational. I left the film vindicated at the Five’s freedom, but broken at the sight of our oppressive culture.