As a child bought up in the greater New York City area during the 1980s, I was privy to the highly charged racial politics of that era. It seemed like every week, there was a media account of a crime that had a racial dynamic – they involved people such as Bernie Goetz, Eleanor Bumpurs, and Michael Stewart; to this day, this moment in New York history continues to fascinate me. Although I was in the ‘burbs, the climate generated from cases such as the subject of this post, the Ken Burns directed documentary, The Central Park Five (based on the book written by his daughter, Sarah) reverberated and left a lasting impression on me, which to this day – even in the midst of a revitalized and thriving city, dampens my spirits. For readers who may not know too much detail about NYC during this time, let me put my perspective in the simplest of terms: as a child, I was not too keen on venturing out into the city. No one place encapsulated my fear more than Central Park, the scene of this particular crime. I remember when a friend of the family went to the park in 1983 to see Diana Ross perform; I was so worried for her personal safety. But I digress.
For the details of the case in particular, I refer you to case history on the Innocence Project website. This case also brought the term wilding into the common vernacular. Unfortunately for the young men, the media scrutiny that accompanied the trial did not see its way to the re-examination of their case. The film illuminates many details that I was unaware of at the time, often told from the perspective of each of the Central Park Five and reporters, etc. who were covering the stories of the time. While watching the film, I felt equal parts anger, abject sadness (had the tears to prove it), and joy and exultation.
As a fan of Burns’ other works, the pace and tone was definitely a departure of form, but that does not make the storytelling any less effective. It just proves that Burns is one of the finer authors of the many facets to the American experience.
During my screening back in February at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a question and answer session was held with two of the five exonerated men (Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam). It was at points heartbreaking but ultimately, like the documentary itself, an inspiring display of what persistence and grace can deliver. I especially appreciated the care and consideration given not only to their plight, but also to the plight of the victim, then and now.
While the film received a cinematic release in late 2012, it is now available on video and TOMORROW it will premier on PBS at 9PM EST! So check your local public television station for more broadcast details.