At the screening of The Central Park Five, a documentary about the 1989 wrongful conviction of five black teenagers accused of raping and beating a jogger in Central Park (perhaps most famous now, which might be a sad commentary on the incident as well as society as a whole, for giving us the term “wilding”), one of the directors, Sarah Burns, hoped it would make us angry. And how I would have loved that to have happened. I know I should be outraged. I know I should be furious and upset at the bigotry and injustice shown here. And I am. But, as much as I hate to say it, I just can’t say that this movie had anything to do with producing those feelings in me.
The movie is written and directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon. Ken Burns is the producer/director of all those amazing PBS documentaries seen on American Experience. But the first thing that strikes you upon seeing this film is how unlike Ken Burns’ usual fare the movie is. If anything, it almost seems anti-Burns in the style of shooting, trading in his cool, collected and to the point approach to a style that seems more to resemble a patchwork quilt, a kaleidoscope of talking heads (and not particularly informative or effective ones this time round) interrupted by everyday scenes of New York City. I’m not convinced that this approach really helped here and may have worked against the effectiveness of the movie. But I also don’t think this was the real problem with the film either.
For me, the problem with the movie is two fold. The first half is filled with talking head interviews of the five men wrongly convicted (well, four; one wouldn’t let his face be shown) detailing what happened to them the night of the incident and how they were manipulated during the following days of interrogation by the police to confess to something they didn’t do (if you’ve seen Law & Order, you know how this goes). It’s not that this isn’t interesting or invaluable. It is a part of the story and must be told. But as awful as what happened to the five was, from an aesthetic point of view, these interviews quickly outlasted their need. They go on and on and on, the remarks feeling more and more redundant, telling us the same thing over and over and over again, until finally, if truth be told, they become a bit of a slog to get through.
Which leads to the second problem and for me, the more serious one. Ironically, even though everything that happened to these five characters was terrible, horrendous, inexcusable, they don’t have the real story to tell. The real story, the information the audience really needs, lies on the other side. It’s the story of the police, the DA’s office and the government people involved; what they did; why they did it; how they did it. But, unfortunately for the filmmakers here, they ain’t talking. At the beginning of the movie, we are told that the police department and others involved refused to be interviewed for the movie (my guess is because they are all being sued by the five involved).
But I hate to be cruel and I hate to be judgmental, but when it comes to the movie, that’s not really my problem as an audience member. If the creator of a documentary can’t get the interviews and information they need to make the documentary work, they have to find some other way to get the information or change the focus of the documentary. Here, one gets the impression that the filmmakers made the latter choice, focusing on what the Central Park Five went through the night of the incident. One can understand why they did it. It’s just unfortunate that that choice not only doesn’t get the job done, it actually works against it.
In contrast, as the lights were coming up after the screening of West of Memphis, another documentary about a miscarriage of justice, I turned to my friend and said, now that’s how you make a documentary. West of Memphis is about those three teenagers accused of murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. If you’ve heard of this case, it’s because three previous documentaries have already been made, the Paradise Lost films that have been shown on HBO.
I have to be honest. I was filled with a slight case of trepidation before seeing the film. I had already seen the previous three documentaries and was wondering what could these filmmakers (writers Billy McMillan and Amy Berg and directed by Berg) add to what I already knew (other than bringing in some celeb narrators like that oversized Hobbit Peter Jackson, who had a lot to do with this film getting made; Eddie Vedder; and Henry Rollins). And I guess to be honest, I’m not sure the filmmakers did. But what they did do is an amazing job of bringing it all together and really summarizing everything about the case in a clear and often very emotional and deeply moving manner.
It also helps give the viewer an interesting retrospective and demonstrates how manipulative documentaries can be. When I saw the first Paradise Lost film, I came way with the idea that the West Memphis three quite possibly could have done it (Damien Echols especially gave me the willies). Then in the second film, the suggestion was that Mark Byers, a stepfather to one of the murdered boys, was responsible. But then in the third documentary it turned out, no, Byers didn’t do it. The film concluded that Terry Hobbs, another stepfather, probably did it. In fact, as they state in West of Memphis, the only real reason people gravitated toward Byers as the murderer is that he is so weird—the main reason why the West Memphis three were accused of the crime in the first place.
The movie is filled with some wonderful set pieces and bits of irony: a stop by a turtle farm to demonstrate that the wounds on the boys were probably not made by a knife, but by, of all things, the slow and steady members of the race; the idea that everyone was hoping that the judge in the case would be elected to office so he would no longer be able to hold back the appeals process; and the oddest moment of all, Terry Hobbs suing the Dixie Chicks for libel. The singing group was encouraged to allow the suit to go forward because if they did, Hobbs would have to go on record and be asked anything anybody wanted (and they did and he did and what a basket case Hobbs turned out to be)—and the Chicks had nothing to worry about because they actually didn’t say anything remotely libelous. What Hobbs was thinking is beyond me; but in the end, he never came across as someone who was particularly big in the thinking department.
The West Memphis Three were finally able to get out of prison on one of those odd laws that if you told someone it existed, they wouldn’t believe you. The law would allow the three to accept a guilty plea, but maintain their innocence (very reminiscent of the Scotch verdict—where a person is found guilty but not proven by the jury and is let go). Using this kind of loophole would save the state a lot of money (since the three wouldn’t be able to sue for what happened to them) and embarrassment while getting Echols off death row. It wasn’t a completely satisfactory solution, but it helped bring an end to a horrifying situation. And when the three walked out that door free at last, it has a huge emotional impact.