dir: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, & David McMahon, 2012
Imagine losing a substantial amount of your life. Let’s say just seven years, taken from you. You’ll never get that time back. How would you try to move on? Now, imagine losing those seven years when you’re a teenager, say 15 years old. How do you cope?
These are just a few of the questions that underlie The Central Park Five. I sought to catch this film after listening to a recent episode of The Combat Jack Show featuring one of the Five, Raymond Santana. I know I’m a few years late, but the timing felt impeccable. The gravity of watching this film in the wake of the repeated police killings of black folk this year, was immense. If only for the fact that it’s resoundingly clear that America has a problem with making things fit a certain racial narrative.
What the directors do best throughout the film is provide a solid context for the whys and whens and hows this narrative came to be enforced. In the midst of clearly siding with the exonerated men, Five shows that even with everything in context, the evidence used against these boys at the time was shoddy at best.
New York in 1989 was not a pretty place. From the burgeoning crime rate to the political climate, the film does well to show how the Big Apple economically hit a zenith but had culturally and socially mired itself in a nadir. In the mix of all of this we are introduced to the Five: Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, and Korey Wise. The sad thing is, contrary to what they were later demonized as, they were just kids at the time. Even with the sympathetic light of the film, it’s clear that these boys were children: youthful, trying to stay out of trouble, the type of kids on the block that just happened to be around. Getting a glimpse of who they could have been prior to their indictments just adds depth to the tragedy.
Aside from the crime itself, the most harrowing parts of the film here are what these young men (then) were subjected to in the pursuit of “justice.” From isolation to physical abuse, these teens were broken down by a battery of detectives, eventually coerced into giving false confessions. The resulting media coverage is just as damning. In the course of watching the film, what’s scary about all of this is how easily these folk chose to believe that the Five did this crime. In turn, it revealed the rabid bloodthirst that seemed to ooze out of every part of the city. The politics here are quickly polarized, as comparisons to the Scottsboro boys and (falsely termed) olden days of public lynching.
Burns & co really go for the jugular here, crosscutting between the Five’s stories of families being torn apart with bombastic headlines and defiant stills of the state’s legal team. They up the ante however when they reveal how the incredulous and contradictory confessions were often the only string of evidence the state could use against the Five. Pair this with the single dissenting juror’s accounts of how the deliberation carried, and you’ve got a shitstorm of ridiculousness.
The subsequent conviction and exonerations tie up the film, with news of the then pending civil rights lawsuit as an afterthought. Despite this though, Five doesn’t give full closure. For me, the historian’s words near the end of the film rang painfully true. He notes that, we should never forget what happened to the Five, specifically because we (see: New Yorkers, but also, Americans) allowed and encouraged it to happen. With “a humble nod to fairness” hands were washed clean and things went back to normal. The injustice in this, from a lack of indictment of the officers and workers who collaborated to push this case, to the state itself admitting no wrongdoing when the lawsuit was won, is disgusting at best. Best called “institutional protectionism” in the film, this closing of ranks is both wounding in its own right within the film and without. Namely because we’re seeing the same here and now. With no accountability for the boys in blue, how will we ever come to police, let alone trust, those who claim to “serve and protect?”
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope