A roller coaster day for ‘The Central Park Five’

Yesterday, it was one of those classic good news/bad news situations for the makers of the terrific movie “The Central Park Five.”

The film won the best documentary prize from the New York Film Critics Circle, but was also cut from the short list of contenders for the Academy Award in the same category.

The Oscar news was unfortunate, but it was thrilling the night before to be a part of the Connecticut premiere of “The Central Park Five” at the Avon Theatre Film Center in Stamford.

I’ve written of my admiration for the documentary elsewhere on this blog, so I was very honored to host the discussion after the film with co-directors Ken and Sarah Burns, along with two of the young men who are the subject of the movie, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise.

The event sold out several weeks ago. The audience was clearly moved by the account of the travesty of justice in 1989 that led to Wise and Salaam and three others to be falsely accused of raping a white investment banker in Central Park.

It seems clear that “The Central Park Five” will be galvanizing other audiences as it goes into theatrical release around the country and becomes available on Video on Demand services this week. The film is also set for airing on PBS next April.

The five men served between six and 13 years in prison before the true perpetrator of the crime confessed and the DNA in the woman’s rape kit verified the truth of his claim.

“The Central Park Five” delves very specifically into the facts of one case, but it also speaks volumes about racism in America, and the way that police and prosecutors all too often zero in on a narrative of what they believe happened in a crime and then build a case against the first (and only) suspect(s).

In this case, the suspects were juveniles who foolishly waived their rights to have a lawyer present when they were interrogated by the police. As a result, they were high pressured into spurious confessions (the naive kids were badgered for up to 12 hours).

In the cold light of day, the five young suspects realized their mistake and recanted their confessions, but the city moved forward with the prosecution despite the fact that there was no physical evidence against the accused (the DNA found at the crime scene did not match that of any of the suspects).

I had dinner with the filmmakers and Salaam and Wise before the screeening. These are very impressive young men who seem to be trying to find good in a terrible situation — they have already taken part in many programs and Salaam hopes to use the film as an educational tool in schools so that other naive young people don’t find themselves in the same situation (the central moral of the film is — Never talk to the police without an attorney present!).

Ken Burns was already a long-standing culture hero of mine before the Sunday event, but I’ve added the brilliant and extremely articulate Sarah Burns to that list now (the third director of the project, David McMahon, was busy promoting the film elsewhere on the night of the Stamford screening).

It was incredibly moving to see Salaam and Wise get a standing ovation from the crowd and then be asked over and over again what can be done to push their case against the city of New York (which has been stalled for a decade). Burns urged the crowd to write letters to the mayor’s office, demanding a resolution to this horrendous story.

Joe Meyers