‘The Central Park Five’ Examines Race and Social Injustice

The members of 'The Central Park Five," Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, Jr. were falsely accused and convicted of rape in 1989. (Photo Credit: Simon Luethi)

The members of ‘The Central Park Five,” Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, Jr. were falsely accused and convicted of rape in 1989. (Photo Credit: Simon Luethi)

Meet Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, Jr. Like Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin and the Jena Six, the five men’s plight is a familiar cycle on society’s dartboard with teenage men of color as its target.

In April 1989, all between the ages of 14 to 17-years-old, were each accused and later convicted of brutally raping and attacking “Central Park Jogger” Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white Wall Street investment banker.

It has been a devastating 24 years for the five New York City men. The Central Park Fivethe riveting documentary directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon that premieres Tues., Apr. 16 at 9:00 p.m. on PBS – chronicles the then vulnerable teens being manipulated into guilt by law enforcement and its allying justice system.

Sarah, who also authored the film’s 2011 companion book, A Chronicle of a City Wilding, spent five years researching and interviewing the victims multiple times. “It was an important part to let them tell the story in their own words and to give the audience an opportunity to hear directly from them. We didn’t get that chance back then,” she says.

Screened at Cannes in 2012, The Central Park Five is a narrative time capsule narrated with compelling black and white photo montages and court sketches backed by an impressive hip-hop soundtrack synonymous with Reaganomics and the 1980s crack epidemic.

With no traces of evidence other than diverging false statements and video “confessions,” flawed media coverage and corrupt cops effortlessly vilified the men. The interrogation of the youth rippled into violating their human rights and sabotaging their lives.

The men each served between 6-11 years in prison. The Central Park Five offers poignant insight on how imprisonment and racial profiling contributed to their social paranoia and post-traumatic stress. Supporting commentaries courtesy of journalists, historians, attorneys, psychologists, activists and former mayors also examines the complexities of their cases.

Thirteen years later, serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed his guilt. However, the backlash from the media’s lack of investigation, taunting from district attorneys and criticism from the five men’s  communities continued to torment them. The psychological residuals left the victims unemployed, with low self-esteem, battling depression and in broken relationships.

McCray only appears through narration to protect his identity. Other sequences vividly show the saddened victims’ families. “They were just ready. They owned it. We didn’t prep the subjects. They felt like we were going to do a fair job, and we were going to do a fact-based telling of this. There was this emotional archaeology that we wanted to do. It was special,” says McMahon.

Sarah adds: “It’s understandable about not talking to the press after what they went through. When I started writing the book, they all said yes right away. There was that degree of trust to open up about things. This was the story of their innocence,” she says.

Many narratives quickly suggest similar racist acts are either inherently Southern or a thing of the past. The Central Park Five is a cautionary tale that will hopefully silence this myth. “I don’t have the answer for how to fix this, but it’s important that we talk about it. Hopefully, [the film] can lead to a discussion about how we can present this from happening again,” says Sarah.

Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.

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