Hold Up On Central Park Five

New York City needs to do more than simply admit error in case of the wrongly-convicted, wrongly-imprisoned Central Park FiveAntron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam. Nine years ago the five filed a federal lawsuit against the city, seeking $50 million each in damages or $250 million total. “If anyone deserves to be financially compensated for a perversion of justice, it’s these guys,” I wrote seven weeks ago.

I came to this conclusion after seeing Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon‘s The Central Park Five, a PBS-funded doc about the 1989 Central Park Jogger rape case, at the Telluride Film Festival. Earlier this month the N.Y. Times reported that “lawyers for New York City want to explore if much of the film’s unpublished interviews and unreleased footage might help them” defend against the above-mentioned lawsuit. Let’s hope that they lose and that the five receive full financial compensation.

But at the same time let’s not go overboard with praise for The Central Park Five, which I don’t feel is honest and inquisitive enough to warrant Oscar consideration. Its heart is in the right place, but its embrace of a rotely compassionate liberal approach to the facts is, in my view, overly emphatic as it either ignores or fails to sufficiently explore certain points. A real-deal doc exposes all the facts of a given situation as much as possible, warts and all & let the chips fall. By my sights The Central Park Five doesn’t do this. Instead it pushes an argument against the wrongness of the city’s prosecution of the five youths (which we all agree with) and offers a pat, incomplete portrait of the five as well as the 1989 rape victim, Trisha Meili.

I spelled this out in my 9.3.12 Telluride piece, titled “Incomplete, Less Than Forthcoming.” Here are the basic points:

* “The five unjustly convicted youths were not blameless angels, although the film tries to indicate this. They were part of a roving gang that was harassing and beating the crap out of anyone they happened to encounter. The five say in the film that they were just watching this activity and going ‘wow,’ but I don’t believe in my gut they were just onlookers. It was the metaphor of a sizable gang of black kids hurting victims at random and the inflaming of this by the media and politicians that got the five convicted as much as anything else, and I resented the film trying to sidestep the likelihood that they were bad-ass teenagers at the time who were up to no good.”

* “It was one thing when one mentally challenged defendant in the West Memphis Three case confessed to having killed three boys, but the mind reels at the idea of four guys who weren’t mentally challenged confessing to the Central Park rape, and with their parents or guardians in the room! Four kids plus four guardian/parents — that’s eight instances of massive stupidity. The kids had been grilled and pressured by NYPD detectives because they’d been involved in a ‘wilding’ incident that same night in which a gang of about 30 kids from their general neighborhood had randomly attacked and beaten up a couple of victims inside the park. But the absurdity of four kids confessing en masse to something they didn’t do because they were tired and wanted to go home is mind-boggling. And the filmmakers barely touch this. It is simply explained that the confessions were coerced. Madness.”

* “Not only does Trishna Meili not speak to the filmmakers, but a photo of her isn’t even used, despite her having written a book, ‘I Am The Central Park Jogger.’ Her injuries were so severe and traumatizing that she’s never been able to remember the incident, but to not even explain the whys and wherefores of her absence from the film seems strange. She may not have wanted to be in the film, okay, but why not at least explain that? And why wouldn’t she want to be in the film if she’d written a book about the attack and her recovery? The film doesn’t even run a pertinent quote or two from her book. Incomplete and irksome.”

I got into trouble (i.e., accused of insensitivity by liberal p.c. bullies) when I explained my final dispute, so let me try and explain a little better this time:

* Why was the victim, Trisha Meili, jogging in the vicinity of 102nd street on a dark road inside the park around 10:30 pm? I know New York City and that is flat-out insane. Nobody of any gender or size with a vestige of common sense should’ve jogged in Central Park after dusk in the late ’80s (when racial relations were volatile and Manhattan “was a completely schizophrenic and divided city”), much less above 96th street and much less above friggin’ 100th street. Everybody knows you don’t tempt fate like that. When Meili was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in 2007, Winfrey said the following: “When I first heard about you, I thought, ‘Why were you running alone in Central Park at night?'” ** And no one in the film even mentions this, not even anecdotally. This was my very first thought when I heard the facts of the case. Five year olds who’ve had Grimm Fairy Tales read to them know that wolves lurk in the forest in the black of night.

These shortcomings aside The Central Park Five is a thorough-minded, well-ordered and commendable exploration of a miscarriage of justice. It’s certainly worth seeing. But it indulges in too much sidestepping to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

** Meili responded to Winfrey as follows: “You’re not the first person to say that. For me, running was a release at the end of the day, and I had this feeling that, ‘Hey, I have every right to run where I want, when I want.’ Wells response: Of course she had that right. Just like a visitor to the Florida Everglades has the right to go wading in the swamps with alligators swimming about.

“I’d been running in the park for two years,” Meili went on. “It was not a smart thing to do. Believe me, I’m not sitting here trying to justify it. Yet that is absolutely no justification for what happened to me.” Wells response: Of course not. No one’s talking about blaming the victim for anything. The point is simply “what constitutes common sense and what doesn’t?”

“But the idea of running alone in Central Park is a foreign concept to me,” Winfrey responded. “You had to be the kind of person who either thought you were invincible or who was just nuts.”

“I wouldn’t say I was nuts,” Meili replied. “Maybe I thought I was invincible.”

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