They were only children. That’s the refrain of those involved in the Central Park Five rape case, in which five innocent young men were wrongfully convicted of brutally raping a woman jogging through Central Park late one night in 1989. They were all between the ages of 14 and 16 when they were arrested, and they all confessed to the crime; it wasn’t until 2002 — when their sentences were already up — that the real rapist came forward, unearthing a chilling tale of racial profiling, police bullying and media hysteria. They were only boys, but they were black and Hispanic boys living in the terrified and hyper-vigilant environment that was late-1980s New York.
“When we first heard this story,” said documentary director Ken Burns in an interview with The Michigan Daily, “We had two fundamental questions: How could something like this happen, and who were these five, who at the time, were robbed of their humanity, of their identity?”
In a new documentary about this case, “The Central Park Five,” directors Burns (“The Dust Bowl”), his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon set out to finally bring to light the fallacies of this story and the forces within the society that was so quick to convict them. The Ann Arbor Film Festival will host a screening of the film on Saturday, March 23 at the Michigan Theater, followed by a discussion on the film that includes Ken Burns himself, as well as Raymond Santana, who is one of the Five, and Steve Drizin, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.
“Everybody was against them, and the short of it is that these five black and Hispanic kids were expendable, and that reputations trumped the lives of these five human beings,” Burns said.
A celebrated director, Burns and his daughter were horrified by the twisted facts of this case, and equally fascinated by the resilience of these boys, who were so emotionally abused during police interrogation that they admitted to a crime they didn’t commit.
“They all are amazing human beings, and the fact that they have survived is amazing; the fact that they have survived without much bitterness and with so much wisdom is amazing,” he said.
During this time, New York was rife with racial issues and shocking class disparities. The film illustrates how these boys were victims in the internal battle between law enforcement and the disturbingly high crime rate.
“What was shocking was the fact that everybody in the media convicted them long before their trial, and that everybody, including law enforcement officers, ignored numerous red flags that suggested their innocence,” Drizin said. “They were blinded by tunnel vision.” These teens became targets, symbols for the destructive youth culture that was supposedly taking over New York.
But they were innocent. There was no DNA evidence; they had no history of this sort of senseless brutality. The film highlights that the most basic strictures of our legal system — “innocent until proven guilty;” “the truth will out” — were disregarded in this case.
“The jury in this case only saw 45 minutes of so-called confession after there had been 30 hours of interrogation,” Burns explained. “Had the jury been privy to all of the tactics — the lying, the bullying, the good cop, the bad cop — that had gone on during those 30 hours (with no food, no drink) and watched these little kids suddenly say, ‘Okay, I’ll say we did it and they’ll let me go home.’ If the jury had seen that, they may have acted differently.”
For the first time since that horrific night 24 years ago, the film gives the boys — now grown men — the chance to explain the coercion and isolation that made them admit to a crime for which the world had already convicted them. Though he accepts that prejudices might never go away, Burns hopes that this film will elucidate the troubling institutional mistakes at play here.
“How do we grow as a people, with regard to race, with regard to prejudice, with regard to criminal justice? We all know what it is like to make a mistake, and we all know what it is like to continue to maintain that mistake. Only this time, the price of that mistake was the lives of five human beings.”
By using narrative techniques unique from Burns’s normal style, the directors were able to highlight the frenzied actions of the police and the media to assign culpability, who were only concerned with getting the damaging case off their hands.
“There is no narration in this film. The pace of editing is quicker; the conversations between talking heads is a little bit more accelerated and intense,” Burns said. The way the film was made helps accentuate the story being told and ultimately reinforces the dangers of racial profiling and intensive interrogation.
“The Central Park Five” isn’t a political statement, nor a harsh judgment. It’s a story, defined by the men who lost their youth because of issues so much greater than them and so far out of their control. It’s their story, and it’s finally being told.
“The beauty of the Central Park jogger film is that it lays to rest all of those myths,” Drizin said. “And it does so by using the Central Park defendants and their families to narrate the film.”
“We just wanted to tell what happened,” Burns explained. “Bringing this horribly elongated and attenuated case to an end is good for the Five, obviously, and their families, but also good for the prosecutors and the police who made errors.”