Near the end of the documentary, “The Central Park Five,” a historian sums up the lesson of the story. He says, “We’re not very good people.” The summation lands with authority, because it brutally encapsulates everything that has gone before. Yes, we have laws to protect us from the darker sides of human nature, but what happens when selfishness, laziness, ambition, mercilessness, racism, heedlessness and stupidity corrupt the legal process itself?
First, some history, then a question. In 1989, a female jogger in New York’s Central Park was raped and almost beaten to death. Five black teenagers were arrested in what soon became known as a “wilding” incident, of kids going wild in the park and destroying everything and everyone in sight. This was the biggest crime story in the country. If you’re older than 35, you almost certainly remember this, and you might also remember that those teenagers were convicted and put away the following year.
Now here’s the question: Did you know that 13 years later, these boys were found innocent and their convictions overturned — that these boys didn’t rape or beat anybody? That the crime was nothing like the one depicted in the media and presented by the prosecution? And that anyone in law enforcement or the media who cared to know the truth could have discovered it years before? If you’re like me, you didn’t know these things. The false story led newscasts and created headlines for weeks. The true story became a footnote.
Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, “The Central Park Five” uses interviews and archival footage to tell how it all happened. It was a time straight out of a Spike Lee movie, a time when New York was still a crime mecca. The rape and beating of this woman made the public angry and put pressure on the police and politicians to act. The cops rounded up a score of teenagers who were in the park that night and subjected them to harsh, relentless and repetitive questioning.
According to the recollection of the teenagers, now men approaching 40, the police told them that if they were to confess to a certain prepackaged set of facts, they could go home that night. Five of them agreed to this. These were kids ranging in age from 14 to 17. They were scared. They thought the cops were being helpful. So they made false confessions on videotape, and the next morning New York City had five new faces to hate.
No matter that the DNA evidence implicated none of them, that the crime scene indicated a single rapist, and that their confessions conflicted with each other. The investment in their guilt became emotional, and citywide. If these were middle- or upper-middle-class kids, any one of them might have stepped up to the microphones and said, “OK, we didn’t do this, and I’ll tell you why.” But these were poor kids, tongue-tied, sullen and persecuted, and so they walked past reporters in stone silence, looking like the guiltiest people in America.
They look so guilty that for half the movie you might think, well, maybe they did do it. But no, the evidence in the other direction is conclusive, complete and incontrovertible. The real question is how such a miscarriage of justice could have happened. Surely, if the prosecution didn’t know they were innocent, it could have easily found out. But so much professional ambition rode on the guilt of these boys that the lawyers either didn’t care or didn’t want to know.
“The Central Park Five” is worth seeing, both for the ways it’s timeless and for the ways it encapsulates an era. The small emotions and behaviors are timeless, of course, but the crime and the class and racial polarization seem like something from the New York of “Do the Right Thing,” also from 1989. It doesn’t seem like the America of today. Or perhaps that’s too optimistic.