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In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were arrested and later convicted of raping a white woman in New York City's Central Park. They spent between 6 and 13 years in prison before a serial rapist confessed that he alone had committed the crime, leading to their convictions being overturned. Set against a backdrop of a decaying city beset by violence and racial tension, THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE tells the story of that horrific crime, the rush to judgment by the police, a media clamoring for sensational stories and an outraged public, and the five lives upended by this miscarriage of justice. Written by
Reliving this horrific case through the eyes of the wrongfully convicted
As someone who remembers this case well, it's pretty sobering to be faced with these five men 23 years after the fact recounting their version of events that occurred when they were teens and hard not to feel sorry for them. Worse, one can't help but wonder how such a miscarriage of justice could have happened with everybody watching. All I can think is that these boys were handy scapegoats for a decade of out-of-control crime and violence in New York and they became sacrificial lambs. Somebody had to pay the price. These five just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, admittedly doing the wrong thing (running with a mob of teens committing random attacks on white joggers and bicyclists), and the cops needed convenient suspects who were young and vulnerable enough to be manipulated into confessing to the most serious crime that occurred that night. Their convictions and a handful of other high-profile incidents during the Dinkins administration paved the way for the election of Rudolph Giuliani as mayor and a new era of proactive law enforcement and a relentless stop-and-frisk campaign aimed at black and Latino men in the city's poorer communities.
Does the film make its case without flaws? No. The deck is too stacked. They should have allowed some representative of the police or D.A.'s office to explain themselves. Michael F. Armstrong, counsel for the NYPD, says he spent half-a-day being interviewed on camera for the film and was then not included in the final cut. Some attention should have been given to what these five boys were doing in the park that night and what other crimes they themselves might have been implicated in. Yes, they describe some acts they saw being committed by other boys and either outright deny their involvement or couch it in vague terms. I think it would have been good to know if the police had direct evidence of these boys' participation in other crimes that night. For one thing, it would mean these kids might not have been the saints they're made out to be, which of course doesn't justify false accusations and wrongful convictions, as the most vocal critics of this film seem to think, but it means recognizing a significant gray area here. If they actually did participate in the mob violence that night, some attention might have been usefully paid to the whole issue of how seemingly otherwise good kids from poor but stable homes with fathers present in their lives can get caught up in that kind of lawlessness.
Also, more importantly, they should have had some expert on hand to address the whole phenomenon of false or coerced confessions and give their objective assessment of this particular case and perhaps give other known examples of established false confessions, just to provide some context and answer those critics who stand by the notion of absolute guilt based on confession. It's touched on in a couple of the interviews, but not by a recognized expert on the issue and not in any depth.
Still, it's a powerful piece and has far fewer Ken Burns-style gimmicks than we see in his other films. He manages to stay out of his own way for much of the time and let the interview subjects have their say. Maybe that's a result of having directorial collaborators.
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