TIFF 2012 Review: The Central Park Five
Look, I knew going into The Central Park Five there was a high probability that I was going to get Burnsed. But I thought, hey this was directed by Sarah Burns not Ken Burns and if ever the was rich doc fodder it was the tragedy of the Central Park Jogger, the figurative public hanging of 5 black teenagers, their wrongful convictions, and their ultimate exoneration. Right? Wrong. The Central Park Five has Ken’s sticky, sentimental fingers all over it and what we’re left with is a pat, Disneyfied version of an incident that tore New York City apart – twice.
Now, it’s hard to even know where to start with this movie. I guess, overall, it was not the movie it should have been. It’s so far from the movie it should have been, it would take the light from the movie it should have been a million years to reach the movie it is actually is. I’ll just break down my complaints by category and let you be the judge.
Where are the cops & prosecutors?
The movie begins with a little throw-away on screen exposition letting me know that the police and prosecutor’s involved in this case declined to comment. Comment? Declined? This is so ambiguous as to be laughable. The film does not offer any further information on this point. Like, did Sarah call them and leave a single voice mail and say “Oh well” when they didn’t get back to her? Or did they decline to comment because of ongoing civil lawsuits (most likely, me thinks)? It would be great to know some more about the tenor of this refusal, but no, we’re just left with an unfillable void of no commenting-ness.
Where’s the New York City press corp?
A huge part of this story is the massive hysteria drummed up by the media when this poor woman was found beaten to an inch of her life in Central Park. It was big news, in large part because she was – not just white – but young, successful, educated, and because she was found in Central Park. The press, specially the strata of press that makes a living writing not only in New York City, but about New York City. And yet… the NYC press corps makes many appearances, but only in press clippings and video from 1989. Beyond that, pretty much nada. We’ve some Burnsian usual suspects (more on this later) – Jim Dwyer, LynNell Hancock, Natalie Byfield – but where missing a few major characters, most notably Pete Hamill. Peter Hamill has never met a camera he didn’t want to make love to, yet… this guy who tossed around some pretty strong language in 1989, doesn’t make an appearance here. Even worse. there’s no half-assed explanation of why as with the police and prosecutors, implying they weren’t even invited to the party.
Yet Ed Koch gets to skate by.
Ed Koch, also having never met a camera he didn’t like, is here. Now, in 1989, Koch famously said that this case was a test of our justice system. The Central Park Five openly embraces that statement. It’s mentioned multiple times, by multiple parts. It was a test alright, and the grade is an indisputably an F. Yet, present day Koch is never called to task on that statement. He says a few very pat things – it mattered ’cause it was Central Park people! – and that’s it.
You can’t just call it racism.
This is the point that most steams my kettle. After my sojourn in Canada, I’ve come to understand that not every body has quite the same hang-ups on the black/white issue as my fellow countrymen do. The whole Central Park Jogger debacle is totally about race and racism, though you should know that we substitute race for class in conversation and thought an awful lot. You should also know that none of this has anything to do with Emmett Till, and that was just a nasty little piece of filmmaking shorthand. You should also know that this is way, way, way more complicated than a white woman was attacked so an entire city decided to hunt down some black kids and hang ’em high. Ms. Burns didn’t even try to illuminate this even a little bit, and I’m guessing anyone who hasn’t lived in New York City will be a little perplexed about the severity of the reaction. Can we draw a straight line from this moment in NYC’s history and the bubbling tensions to the Crown Heights riots two years later? Maybe. We could at least try.
Where the hell is Trisha Meili?
I don’t want to forget that the spark that set this fire was a vicious rape and a brutal beating perpetrated on an innocent woman. Yet… she’s no where to be found. No where.
Are these five men really God’s little angels.
This was, in fact, and gross miscarriage of justice. These five men, only children at the time, were absolutely railroaded and sacrificed to appease a city on the edge of erupting. I don’t want to tar them again. However… the presentation of who they are is so glossy and pristine it’s laughable. Just because they didn’t commit the crime they were accused and eventually convicted of does not make them innocent angels. They were in the park that night, with a large group of teenagers, causing mayhem. And it wasn’t necessarily harmless kid stuff (stealing food from a homeless man, beating people up). Again, this is way way way more complicated that The Central Park Five wants us to think. Further to this point…
Where is the outrage?
Sarah Burns introduced this film by saying she was outraged by this case, and she wanted me to be outraged too. Alright, bring it. The men in question here evoke zero outrage. None. They all seem to have forgiven and forgotten. And I’m pretty damn positive that this just isn’t the case. Again, I feel like I’m getting some sanitized version of events that makes me deeply suspicious.
What I realized while brushing my teeth this morning.
I am almost 100% positive that all the talking heads who appeared in The Central Park Five also appeared in New York: A Documentary Film in 1999. Is it possible that the Burns family just recycled footage from 1999, thus explaining some conspicuous absences. Sadly, IMDB doesn’t offer me a full cast list for the NY one, so I can’t confirm this. P.S. I’m really, really sure.
The Wrap Up
Should I point out the irony that The Central Park Five spends a lot of time dwelling on the time the kids were in custody and the ways in which they were coerced into confessing and then breezes right past their exoneration? No? Fine. Should I point out that even with all that time spent I still don’t quite understand the chronology? Should I mention that I have no clue how the trial really went? That I don’t know if the lawyers even filed motions to suppress the taped confessions? Should I point out that these are really basic questions that this two-hour films should have answered?
Ultimately, Sarah Burns and co. made a very typical “done wrong by the man’ documentary. Unfortunately, this is not a typical story. It is a wildly complex and complicated story, and one we could all have learned something from if only the filmmaker had been brave enough to tackle the complexity. Personally, I think there were many more than 5 victims in this clusterfuck. I think we can all agree Trisha Meili was victim zero, followed closely by Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Then I would count all of New York City, the NYPD, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the parents of these kids, the family of Trisha Meili, and myself in that number two. I think I’m up to the Central Park 800 Million.
Trailer for The Central Park Five
Images from The Central Park Five