Today in film history, November 23, 2012, Ken Burns’ excellent documentary, “The Central Park Five,” opened in USA theaters. it’s a film that’s certainly worth revisiting as we enter the age of Trump – Donald Trump, the next president of the United States of America; a man who was the most vocal public figure to speak out against the 5 young men who were falsely accused of a heinous crime, spending a reported $85,000 to place full-page ads in the four daily newspapers in New York City at the time, calling for the return of the death penalty.
“Muggers and murderers,” he wrote, “should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”
He didn’t refer to the Central Park Five by name, but it was clear to anyone in the city that he was referring to them specifically.
And incredibly, during the recent election, 14 years after their sentences were vacated based on DNA evidence, and the detailed confession of a serial rapist who actually committed the crime, Mr. Trump doubled down.
Just last month, before election day, he said the following: “They admitted they were guilty… The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.”
Mr. Trump is apparently ignorant of this country’s history of wrongful convictions which disproportionately affect black people, and the frequency of false and forced confessions in those same convictions. He really should watch Ken Burns’ documentary; I doubt that he has. Because if he did, he might change his tune. The film is available on various home video platforms and easily accessible.
I watched it again this morning, in acknowledgement of its 4th anniversary. One thing that struck me, and continues to stay with me long after seeing “The Central Park Five,” is the fact that the titular gentlemen, now all adults, after serving lengthy sentences in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, continued to fight for justice vis-à-vis an unresolved civil suit, which they filed against the City of New York for their wrongful imprisonment, almost 15 years ago.
The suit was finally resolved in 2014, after then Mayor-elect of New York City Bill de Blasio, succeeding Michael Bloomberg, announced that he planned to settle the $250 million Central Park Five lawsuit against the city. Seven months after that, the city and the Central Park Five (Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana Jr) – who were wrongly convicted of the rape of a jogger in 1989 – reached a $40 million settlement, although not the $250 million the Five originally sued the city for.
In 2002, all convictions against the 5 men were dismissed due to new evidence (including DNA) that suggested a previously convicted murderer-rapist was the culprit. A year later, in 2003, a multi-million-dollar federal lawsuit was filed by the 5 men for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress – a case, if you’re intimately familiar with the particulars of the matter, or have seen Ken Burns’ least subjective documentary, you’d believe would be a slam-dunk and should’ve been settled almost immediately.
Yet, 10 years later, the 5 men continued to wait for justice to serve them – the same so-called justice that rushed to convict them, despite the fact that there were holes in the evidence that was against them at the time; notably, and maybe most significantly, the fact that the DNA from none of the 5 men was found anywhere within the crime scene – an important piece of evidence that was glazed over, in favor of coerced testimony, without lawyers present, from each of the 5 teens.
But that was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg; there was far more evidence that suggested they had nothing to do with the Central Park rape that took place in New York City’s Central Park on April 19, 1989, than there was that would incline any officer of the court or jury to convict them of it.
“Five young black men raped a white woman.” End of story; It’s a juicy headline, and one that conjures up and affirms both historical and present-day fears, stereotypes, and racial prejudices that many have held and continue to hold, all getting in the way of genuine progress.
You can hear the chants: “Of course they did it; after all, all young black men are animals who lust after white women – she who is to be protected and exalted above all others, in American society.”
Meanwhile, across the bridge in Brooklyn, a similar tragedy befell a black woman, around the same period, as the film notes, but her story was practically ignored, and has become a footnote in history, like so many other cases that came before, and since the central park jogger case.
Once identified, there was an almost immediate, deliberate scheme to ensure that the crime was placed squarely on the shoulders of these 5 young men. This was a case that the NYPD (as the city was facing high crime rates at the time) was determined to solve and close swiftly, to essentially prove to the public that they had the city under order and control. It was like low-hanging fruit, and they attacked like sharks – from the interrogating police, to the attorneys prosecuting the case. They were intent on making sure that the charges stuck, no matter what other evidence came up. And it was thanks to that blinding shortsightedness that they completely overlooked a key DNA match that would’ve brought an end to the case, and saved these young men from conviction and prison time.
It was truly just bad, biased detective work, combined with attorneys looking to make a statementm as well as names for themselves. And the fact that these young men had to continue fighting a system that wronged them, because the system just didn’t want to admit it was indeed wrong, was and still is enraging.
And more unconscionable is that, even with the new evidence that would eventually clear them, one of the lead prosecutors in the case continued to insist on their guilt, showing absolutely no remorse whatsoever.
Also worth noting, the same media that was so resolute, and even pitiless in covering the trial for a voracious, captive audience, who also wanted to see these young men lynched, reported the reversal of their convictions many years later, with a lot less fan-fare; more like a whisper.
Years of lives lost, never to be lived again, and not even as much as an apology, and certainly no similar public groundswell in support of their civil suit.
Soon after the film was released, New York City lawyers hoped to utilize unused, unreleased documentary footage as supporting evidence in the multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit filed in 2003 by the 5 men, adding insult to injury.
Burns, who co-directed the documentary with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, called the subpoena “outrageous,” and vowed to fight it, citing New York State’s shield laws, which are designed to protect journalists from having to compromise their sources.
“It’s been almost ten years,” Burns said in 2012. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Thankfully, the filmmakers won out in the end.
With occurrences like these, as well as all the other legalized forms of oppression that we can collectively put under the heading, “living while black in America,” it shouldn’t at all be a shock to the judicial system when there’s a hostility towards, as well as a distrust of law enforcement by black people in this country, which only increases the divide, rather than closes it.
I’m glad that a high profile, revered documentary filmmaker like Ken Burns chose to tackle this story on film, giving it a farther-reaching awareness it may not have received otherwise.
It could also serve as complimentary viewing to Ava DuVernay’s “13th” which is streaming on Netflix currently.
So do yourself a favor and see “The Central Park Five” if you have not (or even if you have). Fans of the more well-known and more recent “Making a Murder” 10-part Netflix documentary series should especially appreciate this. If you were moved/motivated by “Making a Murder’s” effectively spellbinding, slow burn documentary format in uncovering a mystery with several twists, you’ll be just as taken by Burns’ feature documentary. It’s an absolutely engaging, haunting exposé and affirmation of what many already consider to be an unbalanced scale of justice in this country. It informs and infuriates. I can only imagine what it must have felt like for these young men, knowing fully well that they were innocent of all the charges leveled against them, but yet gave many years of their lives in prison, faced intense public scrutiny and shame, lived with the mental and emotional anguish, and torment over all those years. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
Watch the trailer below: