Thursday, November 22, 2012

THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE: Burns, Burns & McMahon's expose of NY criminal injustice

One of the most shameful chapters (among those we know of, at least) involving New York City law enforcement is the story of the Central Park Five. It deserves to continue to haunt us gullible New Yorkers, the media that led us -- stupidly, racistly -- into our beliefs, and especially our criminal justice system, including the lying male detectives and the two women prosecutors who didn't have either the sense to look honestly at the case or the courage to say 'no' to what was happening.

Disgusting is too weak a word for what took place here -- the media circus that resulted from the rape and near-murder of a young woman jogging in Central Park; the coinage of "wilding," the supposed term that suddenly came into usage by the detectives on the case, due to a misunderstanding of the defendants' use of the words 'wild thing'; the "confessions" which, according to the boys, shown above, were coerced by those detectives; the complete lack of evidence linking the four fifteen-year-olds and one sixteen-year-old to the crime (what evidence there was indicated something quite other than what resulted in the case against the boys).

Noted documentarian Ken Burns (above, right), his daughter Sarah Burns (center) and her husband David McMahon (above, left) have collaborated on a new documentary, which they directed, wrote and produced, THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE (based on Sarah's book about the event, published in 2011), that lays out the whole story. Their movie begins, oddly enough, with the confession (over a decade later) by the fellow who actually did the wretched deed and then backtracks to the beginning of the incident and to a New York City of the 1980s, about which newsman Jim Dwyer gives us a salutary walk down memory lane, while doing penance himself about how easily he bought into the detectives' story.

The movie works as social and cultural history as well as an expose. While psychologists and historians could spend much time parsing the facts as they are laid out here, seeing the boys (then) and the men they have now become is both enlightening and very nearly inspiring. They had families who stood by them (in most cases) and they were pretty good kids to begin with, it seems. That they have maintained their dignity and decency through all this is rather extraordinary, and that the Burnses and McMahon have told the Five's story as well as they have is more than encouraging.

A DVD of this documentary should be attached to any future resumes the five send out. They are heroes of sorts. Once they recanted that first, coerced confession, they never went back on their claim of innocence, refusing to cut deals and taking their prison time instead. Burns and crew have done a service to New York in showing us how this kind of thing can happen, as has newsman Dwyer, who offers the best reminder for law enforcement: "Everyone makes mistakes in their jobs. We all do." The point is to admit it, and move on. Unfortunately, that has yet to happen here.

Perhaps because a lawsuit against the city from three of the five is still unsettled, the filmmakers could get no interviews with those representing the prosecution. Yet this does not unbalance the film because that prosecution's case is presented rather thoroughly. So much so, in fact, that we can see and understand how woeful this, one of the worst rush-to-judgments of modern times, actually was.

The Central Park Five, from Sundance Selects and running 118 minutes, opens this Friday, November 23 -- in New York City at the IFC Center, Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Maysles Cinema; in the Los Angeles area, it will open on November 30 at Landmark's NuArt Theatre. Elsewhere? Not to worry: the film will begin its VOD availability on December 7.

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