“The Bronx was more quiet,” says Raymond Santana. “When I moved to Harlem, everything moved fast. It was a big culture shock.” Santana was a boy then, and he had no idea of the shock that was coming next. “At that time, I was just getting into music, watching videos,” he goes on. “MTV Raps was kind of big, so we would just record the videos and we would watch them over and over and over, all day. You know, that’s how far my range was. I think that I was at that point of coming into who I was, you know, but I never really got there.” As he speaks, you see generic footage of turntables and a photo of young Raymond, surrounded by friends in baseball caps, his face sweet and round. Now, 23 years later, he wears a mustache and his hair is cropped close; he smiles, faintly, as he looks back, but it is clear too that his “range” has been altered irrevocably.
Santana was one of the kids arrested in 1989 for the assault on the Central Park Jogger. The case rocked New York then, and it remains haunting, as you’re reminded early in the documentary The Central Park Five by a series of shots—of trees. As the camera looks out on dark branches and deep blue sky, city lights visible beyond, and then a stretch of road, leading to more trees and more lights, you hear an audio recording, a man asserting there was “no way these kids saw this woman,” and indeed, that “I’m the one that did this,” his words underscored as subtitles.
It’s a remarkable start for a remarkable film. Opening and available on demand 7 December, The Central Park Five offers a sober, poignant, and utterly horrifying recollection of a legal case out of control, a case as “wild” as any fantastical charges made against the kids—all living in Harlem, black and Latino, between 14 and 16 years old when they were arrested—who went to prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
Based on Sarah Burns’ book The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, the film—which she directed with her father Ken Burns and husband David McMahon—provides background drawn from contemporary media images, including crime scene footage accompanied by a detective’s grisly description, as well as reflections by those involved, including lawyers, defendants, their relatives, and journalists. “I look back on the jogger case,” says Jim Dwyer of the New York Times, “And wish I had been more skeptical as a journalist. You know, a lot of people didn’t do their jobs, reporters, police prosecutors, defense lawyers.” Cut from Dwyer to a black and white photo, demonstrators with placards (“She couldn’t run away, why should we?” and “There is nothing minor about it”) as grim-faced—white—authorities pass by a police barricade. The photo makes clear Dwyer’s point: “This was a proxy war being fought, and these young men were the proxies for all kinds of other agendas. And the truth and the reality and justice were not part of it.”
The Central Park Five argues that such absence of “the truth and the reality” was less tragic accident than logical result of a system immersed in fear and racism, as well as shoddy legal procedures and media hysteria. Even as the jogger—a 28-year-old white investment banker—lay in the hospital unable to remember what had happened—people with the ability to shape what happened next assumed they knew. Ed Koch remembers the city’s near bankruptcy at the time, the rise of crack cocaine and violent crime rates, the sensational headlines, Governor Cuomo’s laments and Donald Trump’s on-air bluster, all pressuring authorities to close the case, to create an illusion of safe “streets” (or at least a safe Park). “People want to see if the system works,” he said back then, and the court cases appeared to be instances of same.
But the film exposes that even as doubts emerged—faulty confessions, the lack of forensic evidence, the contradictory eyewitness accounts—authorities pursued their ends. Seeing grainy black and white police interviews with the boys from 1989, you’re left cringing at their coercion. Your discomfort is amplified by interviews with the victims now, as they remember their own fear and naïvete, their guesses that the “truth” would out and their lives would be restored. “I didn’t know about bail,” says Antron McCray. When he was released, “I thought the case was over, I stayed in the house played videogames and just studied.” Yusef Salaam (who never signed a confession, but was convicted on the basis of the others’ false confessions) says he thought his lawyer was “going to fight,” but instead, he was faced with a guilty verdict announced before e packed courtroom: “My whole insides dropped,” he says, “Like, this is crazy. Are you kidding me?”
The Central Park Five were duly sentenced (all as juveniles save for Kharey Wise, who was 16, with a second-grade reading level and an IQ of 73, and deemed an adult), and problems in the case resounding and also repressed until 2001, when Matias Reyes, at the time serving a 33 1/3 years-to-life sentence in state prison, confessed to the crime and provided DNA that matched the semen found on the jogger in 1989. As Jim Dwyer puts it, “The truth of what had happened is almost unbearable. By prosecuting the wrong people for the Central Park jogger case, Matias Reyes continued to hurt, maim, and kill. And they could have had him, but they got stuck with a mistake, and they’re still invested in that mistake.”
These consequences constitute their own “truth,” still contested. Only this week, the New York Times has published a forum of opinions as to how the city should respond to calls to compensate the young men it wrongly convicted and imprisoned. Ed Koch maintains that police and prosecutors “were acting in good faith.” Such an assessment obscures corrupting contexts for this “good faith,” contexts the film makes visible, contexts including a set of racist assumptions that are hardly past.
But even as the film draws out the case’s history, it keeps focused on the victims’ present. “I’m always behind those years that it took from me,” Santana says. “I don’t know how to regain that stuff anymore.” Such loss cannot be made right, which means that even as The Central Park Five grants the five the chance to tell their stories, in interviews now and pictures from 1989 that accentuate “the stuff” they’ve lost, the best possible end might be a broader consideration of how and why this and other cases, less publicized, go so wrong. Each occurrence bears its own set of circumstances, social factors, legal and media errors and malfeasance. Each also has its hope, embodied by these kids, once shocked and now men.