Please watch this movie!
No, I’m just kidding.
But seriously, just watch it, would you?
It’s in my nature to overanalyze and to equivocate, and to make light of the things that are most important to me, but sometimes even those who can close off their emotions with seemingly little effort come up against a force that moves us in strange and powerful ways. I saw The Central Park Five at the closing night of DOC NYC last night, and at the end, when the five men who’d been wrongfully convicted came up onto the stage, together in one place for the first time since that night in Central Park on April 19, 1989, I was choking back tears, and maybe all my perspective (too much fucking perspective) has gone out the window, but I think this is one of the most important films I’ve ever seen.
In April 1989, I was a senior at Bard College. It’s funny, but back then, I thought of those teens arrested for the brutal assault and rape of the “Central Park Jogger” as kids. Now I can see that I wasn’t that much older than they were. Me and my little circle of friends followed the news, and we knew something was wrong with this case. Gradually, news trickled out of overnight interrogations without counsel, of a timeline that didn’t quite jibe with the kids’ confessions, and of a total lack of physical evidence connecting any of the suspects with the crime (as if Hannibal Lecter had done it, and not a “wolf pack” of “wilding” teenage boys). The media coverage was mostly sensational, dehumanizing, and reprehensible.
I think I’d read about Donald Trump in Spy Magazine. Although he’d sounded like a classless, puffed-up buffoon, I had no reason to despise him. Now there I have many reasons, but the first was the series of full-page ads he took out in all the major newspapers in the city, calling for a re-instatement of the death penalty, specifically in reference to this case, in which the suspects were mostly juveniles, and which the crime was not even a capital one. Every time this man appears on TV or in a newspaper, I’m reminded of what a destructive, hateful fool he is. Dog the Bounty Hunter and Michael Richards had to publicly apologize for their racist outbursts, but if you’re a certain type of racist, you get to keep your awful hit TV show and you can keep selling your cologne at Macy’s.
In any case, me and my friends chatted and expressed our concerns, and we kept reading the paper and decrying the biased coverage, and then I was out of school and living in Manhattan, and the cases were going to trial, and like every middle-class (though descending) white person living here, my progressive ideals frequently abandoned me out on the street, when circumstance brought me out of the shocking homogeneity of the Upper East Side, and into an unfamiliar neighborhood, or when it was late and quiet and it was just me and a dark shape coming the opposite direction down the street, or when a pair of angry-looking eyes caught mine on the subway.
The first inkling of our shared humanity in the media coverage is there in this documentary, in that news footage of the grieving families leaving the courthouse. It’s almost like the reporters feel compassion for them.
In 1990, the case was decided, and all five of those kids went to jail. After the public outrage and handwringing died down, I moved on to other things. There was always plenty to be upset about, and the foul explosion of media coverage ebbed. Those kids and their families didn’t move on, but we did.
But we were damaged, too. I know I was. I know I was afraid of that “wolfpack.” I know that as rational as I could be about the facts of the case, on an emotional level, I was scared of those kids. I know that something was lost, or then again, something was not lost, our criminal justice system and our city was simply putting on display an ugliness that was always there. We punished those kids because the sense that we couldn’t control them terrified us. We needed to be placated, and Linda Fairstein, the NYPD, and a credulous news media were eager to oblige.
And then, miraculously, after thirteen years, another man confessed to the crime, and DNA testing proved his guilt. Some had called it “the crime of the century,” but when those convictions were finally vacated, I guess it just wasn’t such an interesting story anymore. I remember seeing those news stories for a couple of days, and being shocked and horrified and angry all over again, but also feeling relieved. And Robert Morganthau’s office acknowledged, finally, the discrepancies in the confessions that sent those kids to jail. And then it was like nothing had ever happened. It wasn’t a story anymore.
It is now a story again, over a decade later, and nearly ten years into the civil suit filed by Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana. It is a story again, and hopefully this time, it will get the attention it deserved, and for that I’m grateful to Sarah Burns, David McMahon, and Ken Burns. I knew a lot of the facts already, but their amazing, gut-wrenching movie still shook me. Hearing these men describe their personal experiences is a big part of it. Their lives were destroyed, irrevocably. McCray, who moved away to Maryland after being released from prison, and who only allowed the filmmakers to use his voice in the documentary, choked up tonight as he told the crowd, “I don’t even go by ‘Antron McCray’ anymore.” But there the five of them were, on the stage tonight, expressing their gratitude to the filmmakers and the audience, full of more grace and life than I would have thought possible.
And the documentary makes it very clear. We did this. Our beknighted city did this. We who represent the best, the most enlightened, the most tolerant place in our country, maybe in the world. We ruined these young lives and we have been affected by it, too, even if we don’t realize or acknowledge it. It’s not too late to learn from this, though. It’s possible that I sound like a self-serious blowhard, but I don’t really give a shit. I urge you to see this film. Support justice and restitution for these men. I resolve to examine and challenge the assumptions I make about other people every day in this great city.
Josh Ralske has written on film, television, and theater for The New York Resident, Muze, All Movie Guide, and other outlets, and is a longstanding member of the Online Film Critics Society. He once co-wrote a screenplay for a mockumentary seen by thousands of Red Sox fans, and he co-produced a documentary series about happiness, of all things, for Rhode Island PBS. He has also programmed and curated several film series in New York and elsewhere.