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The Central Park Five

Al Sharpton was right. I realize a lot of white people(probably the majority)are going to hate hearing those words, but it’s true. I’ve heard Reverend Al being called divisive, opportunist, and even racist(in what I call a convenient label for many)over the decades, but I never hear anyone acknowledge when the man is dead-on about something. And back in 1989, when only a percentage of the African-American community would believe him, he claimed that the so-called “Central Park Five” had been “railroaded”, and set up by police. That footage is in the film. And whatever your feelings end up being after watching this fascinating documentary by the renowned Ken Burns(along with David McMahon, and Burns’ own daughter, Sarah), you’ll have to agree that the convicted rapists did not get a fair shake. Especially, when considering that in 2002 a man serving a life sentence for other crimes confessed to the sexual assault of the female jogger in Central Park. And his DNA matched after testing was done. Of that, there seems to be no dispute. When watching the 1989 footage of the 5 boys that were eventually convicted(and then served years in prison), I was struck by how young they were. I mean, I remember the case quite well. You couldn’t get away from coverage of it if you lived in the New York area at the time(I was 23 years old and living in a New Jersey suburb, just minutes away from Manhattan). And these guys were kids. Just 14 and 15 years old(one was 16). But the police and the media convinced us that they were vicious, predatory animals that jumped an unsuspecting 28 year-old woman, raped her, and beat her almost to death. When she finally emerged from a coma weeks later—she had no memory of the attack. Now listen, I’m not naive. And when all five of the now 40ish men are interviewed throughout the film, you couldn’t get one of them to admit to littering that night 24 years ago. And my bet is that they weren’t angels. But they were found guilty of this horrendous crime even though not one of the group had DNA that matched. Still, some people will point out their 1989 “confessions”. But the documentary makes a highly believable case of the young men being broken down by a combination of fear, exhaustion and intense interrogation. They would have said anything after a prolonged period—along with the promise of being able to just go home. But it was a volatile time of racial divisiveness in the city—and someone had to pay for this crime. A term was even invented by police and the media to describe the actions of the “wolf pack” in the park that evening—“wilding”. When Matias Reyes confessed to the brutality in 2002, all 5 of the men had already served their prison time—so the district attorney’s office recommended that their convictions be vacated. It’s compelling stuff—and it’s a riveting film that captures the period beautifully. Two interviews the film could’ve used—the man belatedly found guilty of the crime, and also Trisha Meili—the Central Park jogger herself. Oh, I suppose it would’ve been useful to have some words from the NYPD…but they apparently declined to participate. For one thing there are lawsuits against the city pending by three of the young men from the case. Plus, it’s been reported that the NYPD still believes that the 5, at the very least, participated in the attack. Are the police simply attempting to mask their failure of a more thorough investigation in 1989? It’s difficult to feel otherwise after seeing this fine film.   Grade:  B+

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