TELLURIDE – “I hope this film makes you angry,” filmmaker Sarah Burns said by way of introduction to this morning’s screening of “The Central Park Five.” She co-directed the film with her father, Ken Burns (a Telluride staple — as is Sarah: this is her 20th fest) and husband David McMahon. And angry is a good way to put it.
Maddening, gut-wrenching, deflating, these are all words I would use to describe the film, which tells the story of five black and Latino youths who were wrongfully convicted of the vicious rape of a female jogger in New York’s Central Park in April of 1989. Films like the “Paradise Lost” trilogy and “West of Memphis” have recently depicted miscarriages of justice in similarly infuriating ways, but few have been such a thorough and profound indictment of mob mentality as this. It’s a must-see effort analyzing an ugly and dark hour for society.
The film sets the scene well: a late-1980s New York overrun with crime in the wake of crack cocaine’s arrival to the city mid-decade. Racial tensions were high. “The most endangered species was the young black man,” says one talking head in the film, delivering an oft-quoted meme of the day. And terrible things happened every day. A minority woman is raped in Brooklyn and thrown from a roof. But the media relegates something like that to a single column piece on whatever page has the space. It’s all “according to plan,” to crassly quote a superhero blockbuster, when minorities perpetrate crimes against other minorities.
But if a young white stockbroker is brutally attacked and sexually assaulted in Central Park, that sacred space, as former mayor Ed Koch puts it in the film? That changes things. That’s a feeding frenzy. That’s a recipe for disaster, and disaster is just what met teenagers Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise. The five were in the wrong place at the wrong time on the night of April 19, 1989, when they entered Central Park from 110th Street along with a rowdy group of “wilding” young men who proceeded to assault and antagonize joggers, bikers, the homeless and whoever else happened to be unfortunate enough to be there at the time.
It wasn’t an uncommon ritual. That’s why it had it’s own slang moniker. But it was nothing these 14-16 year olds were interested in, so they bolted. Three were picked up by police on suspicion of the attacks and were on the cusp of being let go when word of the severity of an assaulted and raped Trisha Meili’s injuries made their way to the precinct at which they were being held. Later, the other two were picked up, and a long nightmare of heavy interrogation and trumped-up, coerced statements began. McCray and Wise were the two picked up the next day. “I came home seven years later,” McCray — who was the only one of the five who opted not to be photographed for the documentary — says. “He came home 13 years later.”
In 2001, serial rapist Matias Reyes, who had been terrorizing the Upper East Side and Central Park at the time of the crime, was incarcerated with Wise. After meeting the man serving over a decade for a crime he didn’t commit, Reyes finally came forward and confessed. But the unfortunate thing, aside from the time served by the Five, their youths ripped away, is that the swagger of the NYPD at the time, ignoring a lack of DNA evidence for the Five (when it was later discovered the rape kit would have pointed directly to Reyes), is the fact that leaving Reyes on the street meant more murders, more rapes, more lives shattered forever.
How, then, does this happen? Justice was demanded by a city rocked by the crime, that’s how. The pressure on the DA’s office and the NYPD was considerable. And any bone tossed would be devoured. But at times like that, the mob mentality that seeps in, it’s dangerous. And it even made it’s way to the jury room. Juror #5 is interviewed in the film, and with deliberations going into a second week largely because of his objections to discrepancies in the video taped “confessions” of McCray, Richardson and Wise, he finally buckled to the rest of his fellow jurors “just to get out of there.”
It’s the same thing the three said about those “confessions,” strikingly. They just wanted to get out of there. They just wanted to go home. And the pressure pushed them into a tragic circumstance.
If the film does anything, it calls for a step back from events like this. And I think there are fewer considerations more important today, particularly at a time when the cauldron is fiercely bubbling and divisions run deep. A miscarriage of justice is not just the fault of law and order. It’s the fault of a society out for blood at any cost.
Sarah Burns has lived with the story for over a decade. In a post-screening Q&A, she said she first learned about the case in 2003 when she was spending the summer interning with lawyers who were working on the civil case the Five brought against the city. She went back and wrote her thesis on it and later wrote a book. She was mostly interested in the media interpretation of the event, the racism-laced verbiage of the day, but she soon decided it had to be a film.
So she entered into a collaboration with her husband and father, who have worked together on a number of Burns’s documentaries, including “Baseball” and “The War.” Burns said he was “the old fogie who had to get over some things, but I was the one who suggested fairly early on that we didn’t need the traditional third-party narration that I think has served our films well, and they just went, ‘Oh, thank God.’ That was really stepping off a cliff in a really good way. It was liberating. And then it became possible to escape the specific gravity of many other sort of stylistic tropes that we’ve had and to go in other places graphically and musically.”
Added McMahon, “The Five had such an incredible mastery of what had happened to them. That gave us all the confidence to go forward and just let them tell the story.”
The film is impeccably edited and well-wrought, painting a vibrant portrait of a time and place. The sadness it evokes is ultimately it’s most profound gesture, however. Historian Craig Steven Wilder puts it well in the film by saying the incident holds a mirror up to society. But he goes a step further. “We’re not good people,” he says. “And we often aren’t.”