The Central Park Five (Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon, 2012): USA
Reviewed by Byron Potau. Viewed at Mann’s Chinese Theatre as part of the 2012 AFI Film Festival.
The engaging and enraging The Central Park Five is yet another documentary on police forcing confessions and people wrongfully prosecuted. What sets it apart from others of its kind is that this is not some small police force in some town no one ever heard of. This is New York and to alter Frank Sinatra’s song a bit, if it can happen here it can happen anywhere.
In 1989 a female jogger was raped and brutally beaten in Central Park. In what became a media sensation, five black and latino teenagers who were picked up that night for “wilding” in the park were eventually convicted of the crime. 13 years later the real perpetrator of the crime confessed and the convictions of the five boys, now men, were overturned.
The film tells the background of each of the boys, why they were in the park that night, and their relentless interrogation by police which elicited false and contradictory confessions from each of the boys. It shows evidence that should have clued police and prosecutors in that they had the wrong people. It also shows the mood of the city at the time where racial tensions were at a high and so was public outrage.
Not to diminish the importance of this film, but we’ve seen all of this before. The forced confessions with a ton of holes, lack of real evidence, public outrage, media frenzy, police and prosecutors ignoring obvious evidence and seemingly more interested in prosecuting someone for the crime than the right person. It’s all as disgusting as it’s ever been, but it’s nothing we’ve not heard before. It’s not even the only such film at this festival. West of Memphis is a very similar film, however, that occurred in a small town where we might expect something like that to happen. Their police are less intelligent, with inferior training, and inferior equipment for forensic investigation. Plus those people are backwards hicks, racists, religious nuts. Yet everything that occurred there occurred in the most sophisticated city in America, New York. It’s not supposed to happen here, but it did and it only goes to show that people regardless of occupation or location are equally flawed.
In the aftermath of everything, what is most disappointing is that this film, 10 years after the convictions were overturned, will be the first anyone familiar with the case has heard that these men were not actually guilty.
If the film has a failing it is that it does not include any interviews with any of the police, prosecutors, or jurors that found the kids guilty. Yes, they were wrong, but I want to know why they did what they did. Why they still feel the kids, men now, were guilty. What was it that made them feel so strongly that they were guilty? Do they admit they were wrong now? To their credit, the filmmakers did try to get these interviews but were denied. Otherwise, the film is very well put together and your disbelief and outrage will drive your attention from beginning to end.
After this film any blind faith in law enforcement should be wiped out. Police, prosecutors, judges, wherever they are from, are just as likely to be corrupt as anybody. Media are only interested in the story that sells and we cannot believe everything they tell us. Sadly, it’s not the system that’s corrupt, but the people who run it and how do you fix that? We are left with the helpless feeling that there is little that can overcome being in the wrong place at the wrong time.