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Attention Must be Paid When Injustice Rules

Our Opinionated Judge on the 'Central Park Five'

Darleen Ortega | 6/6/2013, 9:29 a.m.
Movie strikes a chord on the wrongfully convicted
In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were wrongfully convicted of attacking and raping a white female jogger in New York City’s Central Park. The story of injustice is told in the Ken Burns documentary ‘The Central Park Five.’ in the photo on right, Antron McCraya, one of the defendants and his mother walk to the courthouse. The Daily News/Courtesy IFC Films

I am often struck by how many stories of oppression and injustice remain untold and unheeded.

For example, we live in Indian country, and how many of us in Oregon know anything about what happened to the tribes on whose land we live? How many white Portlanders know about Vanport, a housing development that was home to many of the African Americans who moved to Oregon in the 1940s and whose residents were displaced by a devastating, Katrina-like flood when the levees broke in 1948? Such neglected stories are all around us.

The excellent documentary, "The Central Park Five" -- number six on my list of the best films of 2012 -- tells an especially interesting such story that everyone was talking about back in 1989. Then the story was that five African American and Latino teenagers had raped a young white woman and nearly beaten her to death.

However, when the young men were exonerated 13 years later after serving lengthy sentences for the crimes, the story received relatively little attention. The longer version of this story -- whose ending remains to be written -- deserved an audience and a radical retelling.

The filmmakers -- Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and her husband David McMahon -- take a perceptive approach to the material. They dispense with voiceover, and instead use journalists and social scientists to explain the context in which the events took place, in a crime-ridden New York where racial tensions ran particularly high. But primarily they allow the five young men to tell their own stories. Why were they in the park that night? What was their experience of being picked up by the police? Of being interrogated? What were they thinking when they confessed to such brutal crimes?

It's an important contrast to the original telling of these events in the press, which was that the five were among a "wolf pack" of minority hoodlums from the projects who were roaming through the park that night, engaged in "wildings," that is, several assaults throughout the park.

The filmmakers astutely note the similarities between these press accounts and the press that preceded lynchings in the South decades before. When the beaten woman was found, police rounded up a number of these kids, interrogated them for hours, and eventually obtained confessions from four teenagers who barely knew each other; those four implicated a fifth.

The confessions were completely inconsistent with each other and inconsistent with the physical evidence, including DNA evidence. Each of the boys implicated the others, on promise of leniency which they did not receive. They and their families, functioning without counsel, were helpless and easily manipulated. The boys were between the ages of 14 and 16, and all recanted their confessions shortly after and have maintained their innocence ever since.

One of the remarkable things about these young men is how they come across in telling their stories. They seem remarkably present and real, wounded but not hard-bitten. Part of what makes this film so important is the respect they are accorded by the filmmakers, who have obviously taken the time to earn their trust.