Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Central Park Five

I had not known that the Central Park Five were black (and black-ish) until today. Nor did I hear that they had been exonerated ten years ago, which brings us to this latest Ken Burns (and Sarah Burns and David McMahon) documentary.

Let me say that this is, or should be, my kind of documentary. The premise of the movie is that the five kids were abused by the cops and framed for the rape and near murder of a woman jogging through Central Park. Wrongful accusations speak to me; they pique my sense of justice and outrage. (It's one of the reasons I love Hitchcock.)

The strength of this movie comes from that: It's pretty apparent that there was a gross miscarriage of justice here, and it has basically ruined these men's lives. As an examination of police malfeasance, media malpractice and (kind of interestingly) a condemnation of the jury system, it's top-notch.

And yet.

It's far from a great documentary. It has a narrative, and it's going to push that narrative at all costs. Let me explain:

Our story begins when five boys get together with 25 other boys to terrorize Central Park. To say this is glossed over in the movie is to be generous. What we're told is that the five (who mostly didn't know each other) were going out to play basketball and just happened to be around when the mob formed.

While they're in this mob, they witness many crimes. They don't, as far as we know, take part in them, but neither do they attempt to stop them, alert the authorities nor even have enough sense to stop going along with the mob.

And yet the movie actually has one of the five saying "It's as if we were born guilty."

When they're arrested by the cops and subjected to lengthy interrogation and long periods without food or sleep, they—each of them—decide to go along with the cops' plan to implicate one or more of the others (whom they still don't know) in these heinous crimes.

"I just told them what they wanted so I could go home," was the refrain. I guess the cops got the least streetwise five kids in Harlem, since they never lawyer up or exercise their right to remain silent. I'm not condemning them for this; they paid dearly for it, unlike all the others involved.

But it highlights the problem with the movie: It's both absurdly one-sided and the narrative conveniently filled in by people who weren't actually there, weren't involved, and are casting this as condemnation of society in general, using the word "we" in the safe abstract, given that they weren't actually involved.

Burns and Co. were unable to solicit a single interview from anyone on the law-and-order side of the story (perhaps understandable given Burns' deeply leftist worldview), and this absence is used, naturally, to convict them all of unchecked ambition and corruption.

This is a shame, because while it's not merely plausible but probably even true, we never get even a smidgen of insight as to why they picked these five kids to send up (in the complete absence of DNA evidence, and a contradictory timeline).

One of the chief investigators, in a newspaper interview quoted by the movie stands by the conviction, saying she thought the actual rapist was part of the mob who broke off to "complete the assualt". The other one isn't mentioned, though she also stands behind it, saying the truth will out.

See, I'm really hating this documentary now. I feel compelled to point out all these glaring flaws and irrelevancies, but in my heart I believe that even if the five were guilty there were plenty of abuses on the police side that should've short-circuited their prosecution. Why?

  • The movie draws a parallel between the 1989 case and a lynching from the '30s. But the case unfolds over two years, even if the cops made up their minds in 3-4 days, and the boys were duly convicted in two fair trials.  (A fair trial does not guarantee a correct outcome.) And they weren't executed. I've noticed that any time black people are killed by whites, there's an eagerness among some to call it a lynching, which I think is problematic given the frequency of whites killed by blacks.
  • It draws this parallel because it's basically obsessed with race. This case, we are assured, matters to people because it was black and mixed-race kids raping a white woman. The media certainly loves white, female victims (their audience is white female victims, so that makes sense). But as I pointed out at the top, I never knew they were black! I thought the outrage/sensationalism came more from the fact they were kids, they were a mob, and gang-rape was one of their activities. 
Now, I'm not saying my perception is right, but I am saying that the race-obsession was hyped on both sides. The news was completely obsessed with this thing called wilding and blacks were sure that this was all about race.
  • To this point, the movie shows two groups protesting during the trial: Rev. Sharpton's "it's all about race" and a bunch of white chicks demanding the five be punished 'cause, you know, gang rape is not OK. What the movie doesn't point out is that both groups would have been there regardless of the actual facts of the case.
  • So, while Rev. Al's crusading is presented uncritically, despite his involvement around the same time fomenting antisemitism and orchestrating riots under false pretenses, the movie decides to show Donald Trump and a Pat Buchanan column in support of the death penalty, as proof apparently of their complicity in the madness of the times.
  • The focus on the death penalty is extraneous. Probably most people would say that raping and beating to death (the woman lived through sheer luck and toughness) is a pretty reasonable application of the death penalty. (I'm against the death penalty but extraneous is extraneous.)
  • Wait, back to Rev. Al, for a sec: The supporting (non-involved) players in this film are sanctimonious and condemning of society in general (from the safe vantage point of not being involved) and yet here's a guy who inflames society's worst aspects who is displayed without commentary. This is just galling.
  • It's entirely possible that the two women detectives who led the case believed the confessions of the five, and their motivations had nothing to do with ambition, and we see a video of one of them asking over and over again "Are you just telling me what I want to hear?"
  • The one person in the film, other than the five, who was involved and is interviewed is one of the jurors. Apparently, he was a "Juror Number 8" type, insisting that the boys' confessions didn't make sense, and ultimately being browbeaten into voting guilty because (say it with me) "he wanted to go home". That takes a lot of courage to admit, but I can't help but wonder if part of the problem was that the confessions were actually pretty compelling.
  • Note that the jury contained many black people who found these guys guilty. That seems to have had no impact on the narrative.
  • One of the people interviewed is a writer for (I think) the New York Times suggesting that maybe the press dropped the ball, a little. Well, no, they created this mess. They flooded the zone with stories of "wilding". How about interviewing one of the writers actually culpable and calling them out like they did the cops and prosecutors?
  • Given how (according to the movie) obviously innocent The Five were, a little more explanation of how the legal team managed to screw up the case would've been welcome. One of the defense lawyers was apparently literally asleep during the trial. One of the other defense lawyers pointed out that they didn't want to use the "they couldn't have been raping her because they were busy beating up someone else", but the movie totally glosses over this point, preferring to stuff the movie full of "significance" and commentary on America.
  • Seriously, Sharpton appears on the side of the preferred narrative without commentary. The movie has plenty of commentary about "the system" when there are actual indictable bad actors involved.
Al effin' Sharpton!

And that's ultimately what this comes down to: The filmmakers are so eager to show America as an awful place, and generally condemn us all, rather than focus on the specifics of the case. 

I suspect this is indicative of how I'd react to any Ken Burns documentary (I believe this is the first I've ever seen): Positively at first, swayed by the presentation and general sympathy for the message, then slowly getting more pissed off as I realize how slanted the whole thing is.

That's just a guess, though. The Boy liked it, but he probably won't after I get done grousing about it.

Hell, I still don't know if wilding is or was a thing. 

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