Thursday, June 6, 2013


Here's a link to my review of "The Central Park Five" in the Portland Observer:

The link doesn't seem to work on tablets or phones (it only gets you to one of two pages), so here's the entire text:

I am often struck by how many stories of oppression and injustice remain untold and unheeded.
For example, we live in Indian country, and how many of us in Oregon know anything about what happened to the tribes on whose land we live? How many white Portlanders know about Vanport, a housing development that was home to many of the African Americans who moved to Oregon in the 1940s and whose residents were displaced by a devastating, Katrina-like flood when the levees broke in 1948? Such neglected stories are all around us.

The excellent documentary, "The Central Park Five" -- number six on my list of the best films of 2012 -- tells an especially interesting such story that everyone was talking about back in 1989. Then the story was that five African American and Latino teenagers had raped a young white woman and nearly beaten her to death.

However, when the young men were exonerated 13 years later after serving lengthy sentences for the crimes, the story received relatively little attention. The longer version of this story -- whose ending remains to be written -- deserved an audience and a radical retelling.

The filmmakers -- Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and her husband David McMahon -- take a perceptive approach to the material. They dispense with voiceover, and instead use journalists and social scientists to explain the context in which the events took place, in a crime-ridden New York where racial tensions ran particularly high. But primarily they allow the five young men to tell their own stories. Why were they in the park that night? What was their experience of being picked up by the police? Of being interrogated? What were they thinking when they confessed to such brutal crimes?

It's an important contrast to the original telling of these events in the press, which was that the five were among a "wolf pack" of minority hoodlums from the projects who were roaming through the park that night, engaged in "wildings," that is, several assaults throughout the park.

The filmmakers astutely note the similarities between these press accounts and the press that preceded lynchings in the South decades before. When the beaten woman was found, police rounded up a number of these kids, interrogated them for hours, and eventually obtained confessions from four teenagers who barely knew each other; those four implicated a fifth.

The confessions were completely inconsistent with each other and inconsistent with the physical evidence, including DNA evidence. Each of the boys implicated the others, on promise of leniency which they did not receive. They and their families, functioning without counsel, were helpless and easily manipulated. The boys were between the ages of 14 and 16, and all recanted their confessions shortly after and have maintained their innocence ever since.

One of the remarkable things about these young men is how they come across in telling their stories. They seem remarkably present and real, wounded but not hard-bitten. Part of what makes this film so important is the respect they are accorded by the filmmakers, who have obviously taken the time to earn their trust.

Some of the reviews I've read complain that the filmmakers did not push harder to find out if any of the men were among the kids who committed other crimes that night, something they all deny. To me, given the lack of evidence that the five men committed the crimes for which they served time and the extent of the evidence that someone else did, that complaint indicates a very persistent desire of the dominant culture to find some reason to excuse injustice by continuing to dig for more evidence that its victims somehow brought it on themselves.

The filmmakers' choice, instead, to focus on the point of view of the accused men seemed to me an appropriate and rarely seen counterbalance to the enormous energy devoted to prosecuting them and pillorying them in the press. It allows a flavor of the fear, naivete, and utter disenfranchisement that contributed to five children confessing to such heinous crimes.

What comes across is how social inequalities functioned in this case. These boys and their families were expendable. They did not have a sense of their rights, or a sense that they even had rights. I can't think of a film that has done a comparable job of reflecting on the real implications of such disenfranchisement.

All the while that these young men sat accused and then convicted, law enforcement had the DNA of a serial rapist who was the real perpetrator, and whose DNA was found at the scene. They did not bother to investigate any other theories, though, after obtaining four confessions that jibed neither with each other nor with the evidence at the scene.

The truth would never had come out had not the actual perpetrator confessed. Even then, forces quickly united to protect the police from any criticism. The lawsuit the men filed against the city remains pending after 10 years. Far from making right even some small bit of what was wrongly taken from these men, the city and the police force remains defiant.

The film does a heroic job of marshalling and making what sense is possible of these ultimately inscrutable details. It should be required viewing, especially for anyone involved in the criminal justice system, not least because it provides an occasion for deep reflection on our collective blindness to institutional oppression.

As expressed on camera by historian Craig Steven Wilder, "Rather than tying up [the case] in a bow and thinking that there was something we can take away from it, and that we'll be better people, I think what we really need to realize is that we're NOT very good people."

1 comment:

Sean C. said...

Hey cool. Congratulations on publishing. I'll definitely screen this doc.

So I'm doing this summer course on crime fiction. We're going to watch some films and I'm compiling a filmography. I'm looking for crime films that address social ("systemic") issues, preferably non-US. Any thoughts? Here's my list so far: