Sometimes we’re not very good people. Often we’re not.
This is a quote from one of the lawyers interviewed in The Central Park Five, and it stuck with me after the credits rolled. At first I wasn’t compelled to write about this documentary by Ken Burns for several reasons. One, I’ve never been a fan of the man’s work, which is not a popular opinion. He’s had great success with his highly awarded and vaunted series’ The War, The Civil War, and the eternal Baseball, a piece that feels so interminable I almost forgot why I love the sport in the first place. Burns is of the old school, traditional era of documentarians, the type of filmmaker that lets the subject matter speak for itself. He is the objective author who uses conventional, unobtrusive interview and photography alongside steady narration to tell stories, absent of style or finesse. It’s a more patient, contemplative approach that allows the audience to paint in the details for themselves and meditate on the significance, or insignificance of a strangers life, through diary entry or letters or by simply quoting the historians of the day. I deeply respect his attention to detail and thorough research, even though I am absolutely bored to tears throughout. And this comes from a sort of history junky, I can read about World War II on Wikipedia until my eyes dry out and I have. But I don’t look to film to be read to. Modern documentaries, the really fascinating ones, owe more to Gonzo Journalism and advances in camera technology. They are more personal and specific in scope, sometimes to the point of being distracting. I believe that a lot of the subject matter Michael Moore explored would have been better received and appreciated if his Jack O’ Lantern of a head weren’t in every shot.
But, to return to the point, I find Ken Burns to be too clinical and detached in his work to find it inspiring. The second reason I didn’t feel like writing about this documentary about five minority youths who were convicted of the assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park is because I didn’t immediately feel that there was anything I could add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said before. Particularly in regards to the recent Trayvon Martin tragedy, the conversation about race and the media reached a fever pitch and then nothing changed. There seemed to be a collective agreement that, well, it was an awful thing to have happened but what can you do. What else is on. After all, the news is really just another form of entertainment. So on this second point, my reason for not writing about The Central Park Five, was just as dismissive and lazy as the thing I’ve just mocked. But don’t worry, I’m not done being awful.
The final reason I didn’t feel compelled to write about this documentary, and the worst one, is because this kind of crime, not only the one that was committed but the crime that was perpetrated against these young men, pardon me, these children by the city of New York and its police department, is all too common. It was not shocking or horrifying to me because, although I should be shocked and horrified, I have just come to expect this kind of thing to happen to people because I do read the news. I do keep up on current events.
So when a group of teenagers were coerced into making a false, inaccurate and contradictory confession, with no supporting evidence to corroborate their guilt, with DNA testing that effectively exonerated them, the fact that they were convicted anyway by a jury, a prosecutor, and a police force that is bound to protect and serve, did not shock me and I walked away from The Central Park Five thinking, well, that’s really terrible but sometimes things like this happen. But what can you do.
This is a mentality that is, for all intents and purposes, bullshit. Something happens to people when they are afraid, when they can’t make sense of their environment. A pack mentality asserts itself, a type of herd-like thinking, although that is the wrong verb to apply (thinking has little to do with it). I have a complicated opinion on the death penalty but if there was ever a perfect argument against it, it’s this film. It’s the unfiltered, reactionary response to tragedy that is only recognized in hindsight for what it is: madness and bloodlust. Rage against any and everything that represents the fragility of innocence, of life itself. In that time and place it’s going to be hard to not feel passionate and incensed. I can’t persecute the country in the late 80s for how they felt but I can look back and wonder how much progress has been made. And when there is so much divisiveness so much unilateral reasoning when it comes to the subject of race relations it deflates me. It weakens my resolve because I don’t understand it. I can comprehend the idea of prejudice being one of the few universal qualities we all share in one form or another, it’s an uneasy truth to accept but it’s one that needs to be acknowledged in order to be a more complete adult, but the complete lack of empathy after the fact is what is deeply unsettling.
There is probably a more profound sociological motivation involved that escapes my understanding but that might have to do with being mixed race myself. I’ve never really felt like I’ve belonged to one group or another so I take a more personal approach to racial inequality. I’ll honestly admit that I make judgments about people based on the way they speak and dress. Even how they act on a day to day basis. This is was an idea that I could not shake watching The Central Park Five, that although I could not strongly relate to these kids or the adults they became it didn’t make their story any less tragic or important. Maybe they were hoodlums and hellraisers as kids but the fact that they are black and Latino seemed to make them that much scarier, in fact, it’s almost an expectation when it comes to violence on the news. But the simple fact is, their story is tragic and important, it deserves to be heard and I deserve to be affected, I need to feel the wrongness of it, we all do. But it’s that expectation that informs what is being observed, i.e. if you treat someone like they are a monster to be feared and avoided at all costs it’s difficult for the subject to form a different opinion of themselves. To put it a different way, when the world treats a beautiful person differently because of how they look that person can form a certain opinion of themselves, that they have redeeming qualities they don’t actually possess, qualities that persists beyond the superficial. The same thing happens when you treat someone like a criminal because of their skin color or baggy pants. To simplify, prejudice is often self-perpetuating and self-consuming, like an ouroboros.
So the fact that an entire cross section of the population has an entirely different experience with the justice system is abhorrent. In the 21st century, in a country that espouses freedom and equality for all, it is shameful and embarrassing that when the argument is raised again, as surely it will be, as to whether or not racial bias is alive and well, the argument will become immediately about who is at fault, rather than how to ameliorate the issue itself. We don’t want to fix the problem until we can assign blame and this is juvenile thinking at best, it can and should be beneath us. To be juvenile in kind, in all my years it has been my experience that no one racial, ethnic, or religious group owns the patent on being an asshole. As much as it is a cliche, it starts with one person, one opinion, one moment to say, no, I don’t know this person or understand him, but I’m going to treat them with respect and go from there. When tragedy happens, as surely it will again, calmer minds must prevail, reason cannot continue to be an afterthought and it is films like this that inform, that suggest reflection and introspection. Because although it may not be fun to watch a documentary like this these miscarriages of justice will keep happening until we take the time, in sober moments, to learn rather than be entertained. It’s worth spending a couple hours to see how someone else lives and to maybe, just for moment, see the world through someone else’s eyes, however unpleasant that new perspective might be.