I felt moved but irritated and occasionally infuriated by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon‘s The Central Park Five, a PBS-funded doc about the 1989 Central Park Jogger rape case and the five Harlem youths who were wrongly found guilty of the crimes and imprisoned for years — a travesty. I saw the two-hour film yesterday afternoon at the Telluride Film Festival and subsequently discussed it during yesterday’s Oscar Poker podcast.
I could write thousands of words about this but let’s just deal with the basics and my problems with the doc.
The Central Park Jogger case was about (a) an assault and rape of Trisha Meili, at the time a 29 year-old Wall Street worker, on 4.19.89, and (b) five coerced and nonsensical video-taped confessions by four innocent black males in their mid teens — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise. (A fifth suspect, Yusef Salaam, “made verbal admissions but refused to sign a confession or make one on videotape,” the Wiki page says.)
There was no proof that the youths were guilty, certainly not from any DNA. The guilty party, a convicted rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes, confessed to the rape in ’02. But the kids having idiotically confessed (even though they recanted a few weeks later) sealed their fate, and they all did serious prison time and had their lives half-ruined. If anyone deserves to be financially compensated for a perversion of justice, it’s these guys. Their lawsuit is currently unresolved. But I was still bothered by the following:
Question #1: It was one thing when one mentally challenged defendant in the West Memphis Three case confessed to having killed three boys, but the mind reels at the idea of four guys who weren’t mentally challenged confessing to the Central Park rape, and with their parents or guardians in the room! Four kids plus four guardian/parents — that’s eight instances of massive stupidity. The kids had been grilled and pressured by NYPD detectives because they’d been involved in a “wilding” incident that same night in which a gang of about 30 kids from their general neighborhood had randomly attacked and beaten up a couple of victims inside the park. But the absurdity of four kids confessing en masse to something they didn’t do because they were tired and wanted to go home is mind-boggling. And the filmmakers barely touch this. It is simply explained that the confessions were coerced. Madness.
Question #2: Why the hell was the victim, Trisha Meili, jogging in the vicinity of 102nd street on a dark road inside the park around 10:30 pm? I know New York City and that is flat-out insane. A sensible single woman shouldn’t jog in Central Park after dusk, period, much less above 96th street, much less above friggin’ 100th street. The only thing she didn’t do was drape a sign over her jogging outfit that said “attack me.” Everybody knows you don’t tempt fate like that. And no one in the film, not a single soul, even mentions this.
Question #3: The five unjustly convicted youths were not blameless angels, although the film tries to indicate this. They were part of a roving gang that was harassing and beating the crap out of anyone they happened to encounter. The five say in the film that they were just watching this activity and going “wow,” but I don’t believe in my gut they were just onlookers. It was the metaphor of a sizable gang of black kids hurting victims at random and the inflaming of this by the media and politicians that got the five convicted as much as anything else, and I resented the film trying to sidestep the likelihood that they were bad-ass teenagers at the time who were up to no good.
Question #4: Not only does Trishna Meili not speak to the filmmakers, but a photo of her isn’t even used, despite her having written a book, “I Am The Central Park Jogger.” Her injuries were so severe and traumatizing that she’s never been able to remember the incident, but to not even explain the whys and wherefores of her absence from the film seems strange. She may not have wanted to be in the film, okay, but why not at least explain that? And why wouldn’t she want to be in the film if she’d written a book about the attack and her recovery? The film doesn’t even run a pertinent quote or two from her book. Incomplete and irksome.