Rush to Judgement
The tug-of-war over The Central Park Five outtakes has stirred controversy over creators’, victims’ and government’s rights in journalism. Whatever the outcome of this and related lawsuits, the two-hours-less-one-minute DOC NYC Festival entry sparks intense feelings and re-arouses others suppressed for two decades, about racism, police probity, the legal and penal systems, official irresponsibility or misconduct, sensationalist media, an inflammable public, and the principle of presumed innocence as against presumed guilt.
Mixing archival and video material, voiced and printed narration, and recent interviews, co-directors/-writers/-producers daughter and father Sarah and Ken Burns and David McMahon adhere to the now-reigning pattern. A national magazine writes of “the Burnsian approach,” spoofed when Homer Simpson’s “television [is] stuck on ‘Ken Burns, a documentary by Ken Burns about the life of Ken Burns.’”
1989 New York City had not yet begun its upswing from a pit of social malaise, decay, violence and fear, imaged in abandoned buildings, filthy streets and Bernhard Goetz. The restive young swarmed the streets and, on a particular evening, spilled over into the northern reaches of Central Park. Incidents and clashes occurred -- “wilding” became the buzzword -- as police moved in to clear out black and Hispanic teens.
The early morning discovery of a twenty-eight-year-old white woman upped the stakes of confrontation, changing the lives of five families, the community, the city and the nation. Raped and beaten, near death from wounds and exposure, the unconscious hospitalized jogger would usher in the “crime case of the century,” fanned by the media, pressuring law enforcement and the legal apparatus, outraging and dividing citizenry.
Detained on suspicion of unrelated offenses, five boys fourteen to sixteen were soon targeted by 20th Precinct detectives as not merely delinquents but also the presumed rapists and, depending on the victim’s struggle -- she recovered, but with no memory of the attack -- killers. Though scared, the five and their loved ones assumed they would be released, accused of lesser crimes and, pending bail, tried in juvenile court.
Speaking today, four of them sitting for the camera with the fifth lending voice but not image, they recount how interrogators played good-cop/bad-cop, browbeat, tricked and played them off one against another. Submitted to sleepless hours of aggressive questioning, worn down, ill-educated, confused, they agreed to videotaped confessions before a prosecutor -- jumpstarting her career -- after a perfunctory reading of their rights.
The case and trial played out in public as much as behind precinct and courthouse walls. Elected and appointed officials at the highest levels made unwise, even actionable assertions, as newsmen sensationalized the proceedings. Present day charges of racist bias are reasonable, for thirty-four years after and a thousand miles north of the Emmett Till murder, a black woman raped and thrown from a rooftop barely found mention, and the beleaguered African-American community was itself fed up with criminals.
No one then or now brings up seeking a change of trial venue from the hostile environment, and the competency of defense lawyers is not raised as a major issue. The videotaped confessions were enough to assure jury verdicts of guilty. The boys were sentenced, two of them as adults.
Released after serving years, with less outward bitterness than one would expect, the five men had, still have, a difficult time readjusting and finding work, even after a chance meeting in prison later pinpointed the real, serial-rapist culprit.
Shortly after The War of the Worlds 1938 radio broadcast, Orson Welles dismissed the Hallowe’en prank legend -- still in vogue -- in favor of the intention’s having been to show that the public should not, as he phrased it, drink all the water coming from the tap, i.e., accept at face value all the “news” thrown its way. Few documentaries change anyone’s mind, and as in its selectivity non-fiction becomes Michael Moore advocacy journalism, filmgoers are hard put to find evenhanded considerations or dramatic, if partly scripted, narrative in the manner of a Robert Flaherty.
This is not to disparage the conclusions -- which are also the starting point -- of CPF. It is, rather, to sigh for an innovative documentary format, perhaps in the direction of work like that of Frederick Wiseman or Patricio Guzmán.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)