The Central Park Five + Directors Q&A: “How is it that we were so ready to believe they were guilty?”

by Ratha Lehall

On Friday 18 October, the Frontline Club hosted a screening of the documentary The Central Park Five, in partnership with PBS America. The film focuses on five black and hispanic teenagers from Harlem, New York, who were imprisoned after falsely confessing to brutally raping and beating a young woman in Central Park in 1989. The true perpetrator of the crime later came forward – by which time all but one of the five men had served their sentences. The five men each had their convictions quashed and in 2003 filed a civil lawsuit against the New York prosecution service, which remains unresolved today.

The screening was followed by a Q&A via Skype with two of the directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon. They explained that the origins of the documentary lie in Burns’ undergraduate thesis on the case.

In reply to the question as to whether this film would help the Central Park Five’s civil case, Burns and McMahon discussed how the public profile of the story has been raised since the film’s theatrical release in the US in 2012. However, the case has still not progressed very far, remains in its preliminary stages and is not nearly ready to go to trial.

An audience member then asked the directors how much they acknowledged the greater context of racism and prejudice within the criminal justice system, and how the portrayal of this perspective would affect the audience, to which Burns replied:

“This story is certainly a part of a conversation, of a much larger conversation about . . . mass incarceration and I think that people are talking about that now. . . . We found in the many conversations we’ve had with audiences, people want to talk about those things, they want to make these connections…but it’s hard to gauge what the direction of the film is – in terms of how things changed in that larger scheme of things”

McMahon stated that the purpose of the film was to answer the questions “how did this happen?” and look at the technical processes that led to the wrongful imprisonment of these five men. “How is it that we were so ready to believe they were guilty?” McMahon continued, pressing the audience to look at problems in the core of US society regarding discrimination against black men, which still remain today.

The directors revealed that the City of New York asked them for their research material for the film. Burns explained that they were looking for further information for their defence, as the case is still in its “discovery” stage:

“The Corporation Counsel served us with a subpoena for our outtakes for the film and everything we had collected . . . . They eventually narrowed that down to just the interviews with anyone connected to the case.  We said no and argued that we were protected by the laws that we have here in this country for journalists; shield laws that protect us from having to turn over our materials that we gather as part of the process of journalism.”

They were concerned it would affect peoples’ willingness to give interviews to journalists in the future. The magistrate overseeing the discovery in the case ruled in the filmmakers’ favour. The City then appealed to the District Court judge – who rejected the appeal  – but they now have a few weeks to appeal again on this verdict. McMahon stated that he believed this was another tactic by the City of New York to delay the civil case further.

Screenings of the Central Park Five continue to be held across the US, which are often attended by one or more of the five men in the story.

The Central Park Five will be shown on television in the UK on PBS America (Sky 534 and Virgin 243) on Tuesday 22 and Wednesday 23 October.

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