Los Angeles’ AFI Film Festival gave me the chance to see two documentary films directed by women: The Central Park Five co-directed by Sarah Burns, Ken Burns and David McMahon and West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg. Despite initial Oscar buzz for both films, sadly they have both been snubbed in the documentary feature race.
The Central Park Five and West of Memphis focus on criminal cases where our judicial system deeply lets us down. The Central Park Five looks at the case of five Black and Latino teens who were wrongly accused and convicted of brutally beating and raping a white woman while she was jogging in Central Park in New York City. West of Memphis takes a look at the West Memphis Three—teen boys who were accused of raping and ritualistically killing three 8 year old boys. Both groups of men served long prison terms and were eventually released.
These documentaries make explicit the ways that race and class are intrinsically tied to the ways we as a nation and our supposedly “unbiased” judicial system view crime. And each illustrates the effect of race and class on these young men and show what we already know, which is, if people are poor and brown or viewed as not important that somehow despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary it makes them more susceptible to guilt. While both focus on cases that could come off as heavy handedly to the audience, Burns, her co-directors and Berg simply let the facts of these cases convey the horror experienced by the wrongly accused and convicted.
Both documentaries are tough to watch and Burns and Berg don’t shy away from the grisly, messy details of both cases—both visually and emotionally. They are excellent companions to one another making a full case for the injustices that are sadly more commonplace than we might expect.
The Central Park Five is now open in limited release. West of Memphis opens on December 25.