Historically America sometimes has a penchant for persecution of crimes under the guise of guilty until proven innocent particularly when it comes to those of color. The Scottsboro Boys, Emmett Till, and one of the saddest cases in U.S. history George Stinney (he was the youngest person put to death in U.S. history at 14) are all situations where young black men had their lives taken because of faulty police work, kangaroo courts, and outright racism. One of common factors in these cases is that all the men were wrongly accused of assaulting, raping, or murder white women. Now all of those cases and many like those happened during the post-slavery and Jim Crown era. People want to believe that America has reconciled some of those past demons but in Ken Burns‘ documentary The Central Park 5 he shows us that we haven’t gotten as far as we believe.
Documentarian Ken Burns’ The Central Park 5 follows the infamous New York jogger case. This case surrounded 5 Harlem black and Puerto-Rican boys who were accused of the attempted murder, rape, and sodomy of Trisha Melli a white woman jogging in Central Park. The boys continually denied their guilt and even though DNA proved they weren’t attacked. The only evidence the state of New York had on the boys was an illegally coerced videotaped confessions. The District Attorney Linda Fairstein even without the DNA evidence wanted to press forward with the basis for her case being on the confession tapes. All 5 boys ranging in ages of 14-16 were ultimately convicted of the charges and spent 7-13 years in jail. After serving long prison stints and registered as sex offenders all the boys were finally exonerated or released from prison when the real attacker Matias Reyes confessed to the crime in 2002.
Ken Burns’ documentary has gotten a lot of praises and accolades the past few months and I was challenged by a reader to do a review of the documentary since it premiered on PBS this past week. Growing up in the Midwest I don’t remember much about this case being reported while I was growing but I am glad I sat down to learn about this story. The documentary was a very emotional experience for me so much so that I had to stop watching at many points and watching something else like Louis C.K.’s new stand up or Martin. There were so many ranges of emotions I went through in the documentary as I can feel their sadness, pain, and anger as they told their story. The Central Park 5 (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Kharey Wise) each individually tell their story of the nights events. The viewer cannot help to see the pain in each other faces telling about their experience in the police station, incarceration, and missing out on their childhood. This is probably was one of the jewels of the documentary in its ability to show human pain.
The documentary was able to capture so many aspects of the case to make you empathetic to what happen to the boys. Seeing how the media, society, and the New York handled the situation is something that any man can emphasize with. It was interesting to see how the media vilified the boys to no end (Donald Trump even put on multiple full-page ads out calling for the boys to be put to death). Then it really sickened me to learn that Linda Fairstein the former Assistant District Attorney was able to invigorate her career off of this case. Those things were honestly a lot to take in.
There is an old saying “All is well that ends well.” But, the way Burns was able to capture each of their personal and family struggles resulting from this incident makes us realizes we have to take serious the way we conduct this justice system because when you get it wrong you can destroy families. Thinking about doing time and being made a villain by society for something YOU KNOW you didn’t do would change any man (or woman’s) psyche and would make many people kill themselves but these brothers stood tall through it all.The institutional racism that has become embedded into this “post-racial” society can be just as poisonous as Jim Crow.
One of the contributors to the documentary Craig Steven Wilder probably said one of the most poignant things in the documentary that wrapped up a lot of sentiment I felt from seeing the documentary. Wilder said:
“I want us to remember what happened [in April 1989] and be horrified by ourselves because it really is a mirror on our society. And rather than tying it up in a bow and thinking that there is something we can take away from it and we’ll be better people, I think what we really need to realize is we’re not very good people. And we’re often not.”
I implore everyone to check out the documentary on PBS or watch the stream (CLICK HERE).
Make sure you check out this week’s episode of the “Straight Outta Lo Cash” Radio Show. This week’s show “Music is My Life” with from NBC “The Voice” contestant James Irwin. You can also subscribe to the show on I-Tunes or listen on your Android, I-Phone, or I-Pad with Stitcher Radio.