One of the most accepts myths in America is that race doesn't matter. As the new documentary 'The Central Park Five' points out, race had everything to do with the conviction of five young men for the rape and attempted murder of a white, female New York City investment banker in Central Park twenty-three years ago.
On April 19th, 1989, five teenage boys (Atron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise), ages 14-16, Black and Hispanic, were interrogated by New York Police for 14-30 hours, pitted against each other, told that they'd be able to go home if they just gave the police what they wanted to hear: Confessions to a crime.
One wonders if New York Police actually thought that these children were guilty or if they knew that if juveniles were screamed at, harassed, and refused food or water, Police would be able to get confessions out of them.
Breaking down the way that the NYPD, journalists and the public at large failed these five young men throughout every step of the investigation, trial and fallout, 'The Central Park Five' is a startling document of compliance with authority and institutional racism that also works as a crushing thriller.
As the trial moves forward, almost everyone in New York assumes that these five young men are guilty. Donald Trump buys a full-page ad calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, asking for the execution of these 14, 15 and 16 year old boys.
During one of the film's interview segments, Natalie Byfield, a journalist with Daily News, says that "interracial rapes are covered differently."
She points to another crime that happened at the same time in 1989, where a woman was raped and thrown off of a rooftop in Brooklyn. This story got little or no coverage because the victim and the assailant were of the same racial group.
The film works so well because of the archival footage available, video and photographs of the taped confessions and trial, as well as the public outcry for 'justice'.
The filmmakers present new interviews with the Central Park Five, journalists who covered the case at the time, attorneys and public figures such as Mayor Ed Koch, as well as a Juror who voted 'Guilty,' now say that he knew it was the wrong choice.
As fact after fact in the case proves the young men's innocence (no DNA evidence from the five accused was found at the scene, nor did any of the young men know where the rape had even taken place in the park), the District Attorney's office digs in, basing their whole case on the coerced confessions from that night in the Police precinct.
The press continue to condemn the accused. Prominent Republic figure Pat Buchanan offers this opinion in an editorial piece: "If…the eldest of that wolf pack…were tried, convicted and hanged…the park might soon be safe again for women."
The rest of the film deals with the trial and it's fallout, as well as new evidence that comes to light after the young men have spent years behind bars.
"I felt ashamed, actually, for New York," Historian Craig Steven Wilder says in the film, adding, "We gave a modest nod to fairness. And we walked away from our crime," referring to the public's role in condemning these young men.
'The Central Park Five' is a must-see look at the effects of institutional racism in our society. It is also a simply powerful and well-made documentary, one of the best films of the year.
'The Central Park Five' opens Friday, December 14th at the Criterion Cinemas in New Haven.