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NPR Arts & Life

TIFF '12: 'The Central Park Five' Revisits A Storm Of Fear

Yusef Salaam is escorted by police.
Yusef Salaam is escorted by police.

Do you remember the case of the Central Park jogger, from 1989? Do you know who was convicted, what the evidence was, what supposedly happened? Do you know how long they served, or whether and when they were released? Do you know what eventually became of their convictions?

While the case at the center of the new documentary The Central Park Five was heavily covered when five teenagers were convicted more than 20 years ago, there's been considerably less attention paid to the fact that the convictions were vacated years later after DNA evidence pointed to someone else entirely, or to how the five boys were convicted in the first place.

The Central Park Five is directed by Sarah Burns, along with her father — some documentary guy named Ken Burns, whom you may have heard of — and his frequent collaborator David McMahon. It makes heavy use of archival footage, not just from news reports but especially from the videotaped confessions of the boys, which were just about the only evidence against them and which were obtained after many hours of interrogation.

While it's critically important to the case, the footage of the confessions is largely there to continually remind the audience how young these guys were, just kids, scooped up and convicted and gone. Contemporary interviews reveal men who were changed forever by the experience of being locked up as teenagers, and as fortunate as it is that the man whose DNA actually matched what was found on the victim (as theirs did not) eventually stepped forward and confessed, it doesn't change the fact that it remains a profoundly sad story that deeply scarred these guys who spent years in prison for something even the Manhattan district attorney eventually concluded they didn't do.

It's impossible not to watch this film and think of West Of Memphis, the feature I watched on Thursday. There are striking parallels: the atmosphere of fear surrounding the idea of angry, violent kids — here the "wilding" teenagers and there the Satanic cults — and especially the repeated assertions by both defendants and others that it's not that hard to get teenagers to confess to things they may not have done, even if that's not the intent, if you keep them locked up for long enough and you scare them enough.

It's a troubling film, but it's well done and thought-provoking.

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