You can’t open a newspaper, turn on a T.V. or even visit a website that isn’t talking about the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre that took place last week. As tidal waves of emotions engulf the public and people around the world continue to mourn the victims of this tragedy, one can’t help but foreground the intense media spotlight shining on the deranged shooter Adam Lanza.
While nearly every news network continues to narrow their focus on their quest to figure out what exactly drove this young man to commit such reprehensible acts, the subsequent nation-wide media sensationalism of this case has reached a boiling point which no one can deny. And with that said, renowned documentarian Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon’s documentary The Central Park Five really couldn’t have arrived a better time.
Taking place during a time of massive racial tumult, we visit NYC circa 1989: a metropolis defined by its rampant drug users/dealers, high poverty rates, gruesome acts of random violence and utter municipal disregard for its most disenfranchised citizens. Living in this concrete jungle are five young teens: Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam who were all arrested, psychologically tortured and coerced into confessing their participation in the brutal rape of a Wall Street investment banker in Central Park. But after leaving the precinct, the teens immediately recanted their admissions, attempting to expose the scheming NYPD officers who manipulated and exploited them all in the hope of a speedy resolution to this barbarous act. With the teens’ – considered juveniles in the court of law – names released to the press before they were even arraigned or indicted, it’s fair to say many boundaries were crossed by both the scandal hungry press and the police in this case that captured the attention of the entire nation. Featuring the testimonies of the alleged and now adult perpetrators, The Central Park Five focuses on the dangerous cycle of media-fronted lynch mobs, and five young men’s fight to prove their innocence once and for all.
The Central Park Five hits the ground running because of the brilliant job the Burns and McMahon do at first establishing the very specific and very insidious underbelly of 1980’s New York. Using mostly archival footage—a feature that often proves deadening for many documentaries– The Central Park Five succeeds because its visuals and sharp narration transposes us to a time that the public has since naively glossed over. Even the ripest Generation Z’er will be swiftly uprooted from their mac book screen by this.
Even more disturbing is the commentary given by historians and New York Times columnists like Jim Dwyer. That’s because it’s these individuals whose documenting eyes unabashedly recall this time in NYC history as an era where “a lot of people,” including law enforcement simply “didn’t do their job.” It’s a time where, as they point out, the “most endangered species in North America is the young black man.”
Smoothly shifting from historical discourse to face to face testimonials, the documentary aligns us with the temperaments of these young boys who became caught in the midst of a horrible case of police corruption and media frenzy.
We get to hear the five’s rendition of the eerie events that took place in Central Park, the night of April 19, 1989. Quite honestly, it’s a miracle that the words even come straight from the mouths of these five who the American judicial system chewed up and spewed back out. It’s not very often that kids– or even adults– raised through prison, poverty and identity battering at the hands of merciless machines like the media the law system live long enough to soberly tell their tales.
But the film’s death stroke in delivering the Burns and Mchanon’s introspection on the gross, uncalled for societal vilification of these youths is the film’s use of the 20-year-old police video tapes of the young men being ‘interrogated’. The teary eyed men recount how NYPD detectives kept them up all night during ‘questioning’, and how they were physically threatened and intimidated into giving false confessions. As seen on the disturbing video footage, the police even have some of the boys’ equally bewildered, uninformed and overwhelmed parents corroborating their kids’ false claims of rape, all in the hopes of just getting their youngsters home and out of trouble– as the police nefariously promised would happen.
It’s by these means that The Central Park Five follows this frustrating case of mob justice, and impressively sees little convincing needing to be done by the hands of the Burns or Mchanon. While no question remains of the truth to Adam Lanza’s committing his crimes or his outright guilt, the most crippling avenue the film explores actually comes from the documentarians’ highlighting the extraordinary media frenzy that engulfs nation-wide interest cases like the Sandy Hook massacre or the case of the Central Park 5.
With journalists and an overzealous Donald Trump demanding that these boys should face the death penalty – before they’ve even been proven guilty – the film’s greatest commentary is on how the press, not just one pious individual, can orchestrate a modern day lynch mob fuelled by the aggrandizement of the alleged acts of the defenseless, alone. The Central Park Five makes one ponder how guilt is really established in the public, and forces us to ask who the real monster is: the criminal, or the journalists who prop them up onto the gallows?