New York might be the city that never sleeps, but it certainly has nightmares. Central Park, the lush oasis in the heart of concrete Manhattan, has been immortalised in film folklore from On The Town to Annie Hall. But in the deep, dark undergrowth lurks a nastier, rotten side. On 19 April 1989 a white woman was raped and beaten to near-death in the park by a black male suspect, sparking outrage in the press over the atrocity. In their haste and desperate desire to get results, the police arrested five innocent African Americans Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, and Antron McCray; who came to be known as ‘The Central Park Five’. A rallying cry against injustice in the system, the latest documentary from Ken Burns should find a mainstream audience and give the five other victims of that night the voice they never had.
The rape of Trisha Meili was a despicable act where an innocent was preyed on and violated. The film shows that this oppression is systemic, as the NYPD persecute the five boys into providing false confessions. In candid interviews, four of the five boys (we hear Antron via audio only) speak of their initial confusion over the charges and their failure to understand that they were being accused of a crime that had thrown the city into turmoil.
The five youths were all in Central Park on that fateful night, and all admit to being part of a violent group that went about assaulting people in the middle of Manhattan. But as the police clamped down harder and harder on them, piling on the pressure in order to get a confession, one by one the boys cave and confess to the crime in the belief that the police will let them go.
What sealed their fate was not DNA evidence, nor fingerprints at the scene of the crime, but that each were filmed admitting partial involvement in the assault. As we watch the archive footage, seeing each one give ad-hoc fabricated statements as they squirm in their seats, you witness not only how uncomfortable they are at the relentless questioning, but also how painfully young and naïve they must have been to not realise what the consequences of these confessions. Taken at face value the videos are enough for the jury to pass a guilty judgement, but to see the whole truth one must look beyond the image.
A montage of late 80s New York provides a true context to the city’s situation at the time. Marred by rampant crime as a result of an ever widening gap between rich and poor, the city see’s the wealthy middle-class in upper Manhattan shoulder to shoulder with the poor minorities in Harlem. The police are under immense pressure from both those above them and a relentless press to bring crime under control, and so resort to arresting any youths they can find before attempting to connect the dots.
They aren’t the only ones to blame for the injustice, as Burns hastens to point out. Again and again contemporary newspaper headlines flash up on the screen, describing the teenagers as a ‘pack of wolves’ that viciously savaged the woman in the park. This barrage of sensationalist storytelling in the news outlets emphasises how easy it is for the media to prey on the susceptible views of the public, turning them against the five before the trial had even begun.
The media’s distortion of the truth directly plays into the case, with the racial element impossible to avoid. As a lawyer explains, if the rape had not been interracial it would have been ignored by the press. The fact that a suspected black male raped a white woman blew up the story to gigantic proportions, as the uneasy tension that already existed in the city was exacerbated.
Though the wider picture is explored here, for the most part the film sticks with the story of the five men convicted. Following their lives from arrest to conviction to prison, whilst tender and poignant, sometimes borders on the plain sentimental. Any voice to the police and prosecutors at the time is avoided to showcase the emotions the five went though during their sentence and how they adapted to society upon their release. But perhaps that’s only right. New York Times Journalist Jim Dwyer points out that the initial scandal created a dangerous witch-hunt, such was the hatred against and desire to convict the five men. Upon the discovery of their innocence, the media barely batted an eyelid, and even today a lawsuit by the five against the City of New York remains unresolved. One of the five recounts how when on trial he wanted to scream to the prosecutor, “You don’t know me!” Thanks to the film, we finally do.