Friday, December 14, 2012

The Central Park Five

Their Story 23 Years Ago, With Enduring Horrors Now

Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise in a photo taken in October 2012.


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, December 14, 2012

Piercing and powerful, "The Central Park Five" shakes, shocks and stirs you to outrage as the documentary gives five young black and Latino men a platform that was severely diluted by a vitriolic mainstream media 23 years ago in New York City.  Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Kharey Wise and Antron McCray were convicted in 1990 of a crime they didn't commit: the rape and brutal beating of Trisha Meili, a white woman jogging in Central Park on April 19, 1989. 

Directed by Sarah Burns, her husband David McMahon and her father Ken Burns, and based on Ms. Burns' book, "The Central Park Five" opens with haunting audio of Matias Reyes talking about how he violently attacked Ms. Meili on a fully moonlit spring night.  "There's no way these boys could have done this to her," he says.  It is a chilling revelation, one which stokes anger, horror and sadness.  Sadness at the realization that innocent young men, without DNA evidence, bloodstains or scratches, are convicted.  Innocence taken from them.  "The Central Park Five" excoriates those who believed in the boys' guilt.  The film casts a light on the other victims of that awful night in 1989, making it clear that the five young men were victims in addition to Ms. Meili -- but victims of overzealous press, police and prosecutors.

Geography defines this fascinating and vital film, an essay about a devastating rush to judgment and a frenzy of political pressure.  The film, which explores a racially tense New York City in a 1980 decade marred by explosive, rising crime in the Big Apple, with such notorious figures like Bernhard Goetz, who shot four black men who he said were about to threaten him, and other racial violence against blacks in the areas of Howard Beach and Bensonhurst.

Constructed efficiently and clinically, "The Central Park Five" unwinds in matter-of-fact investigatory dispatch, with news footage and interviews, analyzing New York and the criminal justice system, as well as an indicting media that demonized, tried and convicted the five young men in public before they had their day in court.  "The Central Park Five" however, is the true day in court that these gentlemen never really had.  All five testify so profoundly and plainly.  Their first-person accounts reveal the unnerving (and unsurprising) truth about the police abuse and intimidation they faced at a precinct -- for hours and hours, without sleep, food, bathroom breaks -- before yielding to the relentless coercions. 

As I watched this documentary I ached for these young men all over again.  (I got to know several of their family members during the trials in 1990.  I remember screaming in the courtroom when Mr. Richardson and Mr. Wise were convicted.) 

One of the year's best films, the Burns-Burns-McMahon documentary is most effective and vivid when we see and hear the young men's compelling and disturbing stories.  Each, teenagers at the time, spent years in prison -- ranging from six to thirteen -- and are still outrageously having their civil suits against New York City stalled, years after New York's Court of Appeals vacated their convictions in 2002.

There are accompanying voices from activists, political figures, journalists.  All of the voices examine the New York media's -- and much of a fearful public's -- relentless persecution of five innocent teenagers, laced with unvarnished racist invective and stereotyping.  Not unlike the notorious Scottsboro case in the 1930s, this modern-day nightmare for five youngsters reverberates throughout two hours, just a fraction of the time of their own years-long ordeals. 

"The Central Park Five" -- in which yours truly can briefly be seen in a grey overcoat holding a white umbrella as part of a protest -- restores these men, humanizing and vindicating them.  The only regret about this formidable, devastating documentary is that it came almost 24 years too late as an antidote to the manipulated confessional videotapes that were the very lies that several juries relied on.

"The Central Park Five", is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  The film's running time is one hour and 59 minutes.  

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