Craveable - The Culture Craver Blog

Wednesday 28th of November 2012

One of the "Central Park Five," Yusef Salaam, being escorted into a Manhattan Courthouse. Photo by Clarence Davis/NY Daily News.


When mainstream Americans, not just those on the fringe, raise questions about justice, I transform from a cynic into a patriot. I get the feeling that we are all a little bit like the history book figures I most admire — Paul Revere, Abraham Lincoln, Shirley Chisholm, Harvey Milk — and we all have a bit of their potential.

This fervor is my lasting impression of the new documentary The Central Park Five, directed, written, and produced by Ken Burns with his daughter Sarah Burns (the author of the book The Central Park Five) and her filmmaker husband David McMahon.

On Monday night, I attended a screening of the film in Harlem and a dinner party with two of the filmmakers and four of the men who are the subject of the film.

A New York City transplant of eight years, “the Central Park jogger” used to be a cautionary, gruesome tale told to unaccompanied women by their mothers. She was the reason why I took a self-defense class while in college.

I was vaguely familiar with a mix up regarding the assailant, but it was not until hearing about the documentary, The Central Park Five, that I actually focused on what happened. The story is not only a warning about being a woman alone; it is also a warning about justice and our legal system.

The two-hour documentary is stirring, uncomfortable, and upsetting. It is also a bit relieving — in that the truth came out in the end.

The film is a peek into a bygone era: a New York City ruled by Rudi Giuliani, where crack was invading the impoverished uptown limits while Wall Street was booming downtown. It tells the story of the drama that unfolded when these disparate worlds collided one evening when a young banker living on the Upper East Side went for a jog in Central Park on the same night a mob of restless teen boys were roaming Central Park, looking for something to do.

It shows with stark, historical footage how five boys between 14 and 16 were sought by the police, coerced into offering confessions, and convicted. It shows how they were sent to jail until nearly a decade later when the real attacker came forward and admitted his crime.

While watching, I wondered what would have happened if the Central Park Jogger story were set at the dawn of the 20th Century instead of its sunset. Would the press and the public have treated the boys more like they treated the homeless and orphaned children selling newspapers in Newsies? I wonder if the alleged victims would have received public sympathy or a fair trial if they hadn’t been black and Latino boys from Harlem in the midst of the crack epidemic in a nation with an unspoken racial code.

In the country where press coverage of Emmett Till’s obliterated 14 year-old corpse launched the civil rights movement, the details of the Central Park Five investigation were too murky to properly fuel media coverage. (There was no DNA evidence and the boys’ confessions did not remotely match up.) Instead, the press lifted these boys to infamy based on where they came from and the unspoken assumptions with which black and Latino men have to live.

Watching the story unfold, it was impossible to not feel a sense of collective culpability. How can we call the lackadaisical justice granted to the Central Park Five “justice”? How can we talk righteously about “democracy and equality” while we hunt down a group of helpless black and Latino youth as fall men?

I think one of the most striking moments in the film was watching footage of one of the teens, Korey Wise, who sits before providing his confession, shaking nervously and showing signs of confusion and fatigue. An officer sits a can of Pepsi before him, and Korey begins to tell a vague account of a rape. Korey’s story is clearly not plausible, but it is considered a confession. Korey’s words and body language are disturbing, and something about that Pepsi can (perhaps the unintentional “product placement” of the same soda featured in the unforgettable Michael Jackson advertisement) leaves an unpleasant taste. The videos of the other four boys show similar disorientation, and it’s clear that their accounts don’t match up.

The filmmakers did an amazing job of piecing together a story of kids whose parents and communities are powerless in protecting them. In so doing, they manage to place audience members in the witness stand of collective responsibility for the Five and others like them. In a year where Ramarley Graham and Trayvon Martin had 15 minutes before dropping from the national consciousness, The Central Park Five reminds us how biased American can be against young black and Latino men, especially those from low income communities.

When the credits came, attendees rushed to their feet, offering thunderous applause to welcome the filmmakers and four of the Central Park Five (Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise) to the stage for a conversation about the film.

One of the most interesting exchanges was regarding the Central Park Jogger’s silence on whether the wrongly accused and convicted men should receive reparations from the City of New York. The men said they understood why the victim of a vicious attack would not want to relive it; they said they faulted the City for its inaction. A white woman sitting next to me remarked that if Trisha Meili, the jogger, stood with the men, she might find more healing than she could ever expect. In that moment, I saw hope for a post-racial, cross-racial vision of human equality.

Later, at the party hosted by Albert Maysles (a filmmaker and the founder of Maysles Cinema) and his wife, I mixed with the cast and crew and their families over a lavish Indian-inspired dinner and wine. I was incredibly struck by how much possibility had been taken from the men of The Central Park Five, who were just starting high school when they were accused. Being imprisoned has had a significant impact on their lives — and has hurt their chances even now that they’re free. That said, they don’t come across as hardened as I would expect from people who have lost so much. They seem like pleasant, thoughtful men. When I asked them if they are capable of happiness, they said yes. Richardson mentioned his work speaking on behalf of The Innocence Project. Mainly, they are appreciative that some people have stood with them.

For me — a young black woman living in Harlem — the film made me re-commit to being present in my community. Harlem has often been miscategorized and misperceived. It’s important that people like me with the capacity to mentor, to speak against injustice, and to support and defend the younger people are present and active. The film also helped me to realize that what happened in Central Park in 1989 isn’t simply a historical event. Today — in an era when black actors are all but absent from primetime television and when many New Yorkers and Americans still live in segregated communities — our perceptions of (and interactions with) each other are more important than ever.