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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
I remember the skeptical tone of one news report I read in 2002, when the Central Park Five ("CP5") were exonerated due to Matias Reyes's confession to the 1989 assault and rape of Trisha Meili. The majority of people (including myself) who gave the story a cursory glance seemed doubtful about a serial rapist who was already serving a life sentence--i.e., with nothing left to lose by making a false confession--meeting one of the CP5 by chance in prison and taking the blame in order to clear the names of several young men who must have been properly convicted some years earlier. "What did Reyes get in return?" many of us wondered, ignoring the facts that all of the CP5 had already completed their sentences for the rape and near-murder of Meili--though one of them was incarcerated for a later drug trafficking offense and just happened to meet Reyes in prison--and that Reyes's DNA matched the profile found at the crime scene.
THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE is very important in showing the other side of the story. It definitely has its slant, as any documentary will, but it makes a strong argument for the basic fact that five teenaged boys were convicted solely because of coerced and contradictory confessions to the crime after hours of being interrogated and played off against one another with a complete disregard for the lack of direct evidence against them. It clearly shows how this can and does happen far more often than many of us want to think. It's also very revealing of how dangerous public emotion and outrage, regardless of its focus, can be.
Unfortunately, the NYPD, the prosecutors in the case, and everyone else responsible for the convictions declined to speak to Directors Ken and Sarah Burns, which is very telling but also limits the scope of the film. THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE is dominated by interviews with the CP5 and their relatives, obviously a crucial ingredient, but it becomes repetitive. There are, however, important comments from then-Mayor Ed Koch, who was all for conviction and serious punishment of the CP5 in 1989 but has now apparently changed his mind. The brief input by NYC historian Craig Steven Wilder and several others also adds a great deal.
One of the strongest aspects of THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE is the brief sociological perspective of New York City's racially polarized, have/have-not environment during the 1970s and 80s. Not only is it elucidating in its own right, it also provides background and something in the way of explanation for the wrongful conviction of the CP5.
Some of the more negative reviews have criticized THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE simply for being "boring," and at the risk of sounding crass, I see what they mean. While this is an important miscarriage of justice that should not be ignored, the repetitiveness and narrow scope of the film will inevitably limit its mass appeal. Anyone with a serious interest in this case and wrongful convictions in general, however, will probably find its two-hour length well-worth sitting through.
More analysis of the details that led to the wrongful convictions would have been helpful, e.g., the term "wilding." One of the CP5 confessed to police that he and a number of others were "wilding" in Central Park on the night of the crime. The term "wilding" is roughly equivalent to "raising hell," the usual term-of-choice when I was a kid in the late '70s/early '80s. "Raising hell" could, of course, refer to anything from driving fast, drinking beer, and talking loudly and irreverently (as we meant it) to violent felonies. More discussion of how misinterpretations of the loose term "wilding" were a critical factor in the conviction would have added some depth to this documentary.
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