Ken Burns: The Central Park Five | Ken Burns Lets Me Down

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Lately (with the cult of #BlackLivesMatter consuming the minds of the world), I've not been able to log onto a streaming service without ramming headfirst into "black power movie" suggestions. My initial response was to simply roll my eyes and move onward (I've seen most of these films anyway, it seems). Although, one documentary, in particular, stuck out: Ken Burns: The Central Park Five. Which, I realized, I hadn't yet seen.

This grabbed my attention not only due to my love of Ken Burns documentaries (and it is true love, regardless of what our families say), but also because I'd never actually delved too deeply into the Central Park Five criminal case, regardless of having heard it references ad nauseam over the years. It's yet another one of those famous stories that, whether or not you've personally focused in on it, you tend to just know about. And tend to agree (almost by default) with the most popular narrative (I fear this subconscious "knowledge" of things plays a large factor in many of our social problems, as it makes you feel as if you "know enough" about matters to get the gist and act on them; this is similar to my experience with the Michael Jackson accusations). The commonly accepted narrative, in this case, obviously being that there were 5 innocent young black men in New York who were falsely accused and convicted of a crime due to racism within the system.

Admittedly, largely due to the current cultural atmosphere, I went into this thing with my own usual biases and then some. From Paradise Lost to Making a Murderer, I've always been well aware of how manipulatively untrustworthy these types of documentaries can be. Most appear to have obviously picked a side and are clearly all-in on pushing for that side they've chosen (putting their confirmation bias on film, by highlighting the points that support their beliefs and omitting the ones that don't). The side almost always being sided with, in these documentaries, being, of course, the side of the accused. I'm assuming this boils down to our innate psychological desire to root for the underdog and our unnerving tendency to distrust authority. Added to this, the accused were also African American's — America's favorite underdog to root for. As an added bonus to their underdogness, they were also all underage.

Not to mention, a story is simply more interesting if it's about a person/people that's been falsely accused. Who wants to watch a mundane story of the law functioning as designed? We're storytelling animals, after all, who love tales that stand out from the norm. This desire, I fear, has a persuasive habit of driving our perceptions and beliefs in the direction of what's more interesting and emotionally evocative rather than what's more true.

Nevertheless, this is Ken Burns we're talking about. So, while my skeptical vigilance was as high as ever, I did have hope. In fact, I held out hope not only that the documentary wasn't going to be swayed by agenda, but also that this case would actually turn out to be just as cut-and-dry as I'd always heard it was. I actually wanted the boys to be victims of racist police and a racist system. I wanted it to be unambiguous and obvious to anyone watching. With the Disciples of Wokeness surrounding me on all sides, I'd have enjoyed finally having something to agree with them on. Especially considering that I'm more-or-less (although seeming less and less, these days) still a liberal. And I'm becoming a bit weary of being alienated by both sides of the political discussion. Contrary to what some may believe, I don't get joy out of being the socially ostracized contrarian (although, perhaps there's a bit of my own victim mentality involved in that, as well? 🤔).

But, alas, in either case, my agreements with wokeness weren't destined to be (not today, at least). I watched the documentary and, well... further alienation, here I am.

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"How could we have been raping this lady when we were busy brutally assaulting these other people?"
— The Central Park Five

I'm paraphrasing, of course. 

But I couldn't help but zone in on this point quite a bit while watching The Central Park Five. And I was doing so because of how astounded I was that the documentarians were downplaying the actual crimes these boys had committed on the night of the incident we're to presume they were innocent of (after further research, I'm not too sure about that either). To me, this lack of concession to their actual wrongdoings (and, in fact, the almost glorification of the boys) was a quick indicator of a clear one-sided agenda like the one I was so afraid of. And it was very off-putting.

This isn't to say that I don't believe them (it certainly isn't to say I do believe them either), but it is to say that I felt this (and the lack of compassion shown toward the boys' known victims) put the documentaries clear bias on full display. It made it difficult to trust much in the movie's information as a whole. 

And the suggestions of "racism", as well, appeared to possibly be blown out of proportion. Because even if the Five were innocent, surely it's at least understandable how the authorities would suspect them? There were a lot of witnesses seeing them there that night, after all; they'd made confessions (whether or not you feel they were coerced, they DID make them); and they apparently DID brutally assault at least one other person. This seems as if it would be enough for the police (and court) to strongly suspect anyone of guilt, regardless of color. Does that make it right to convict a person of a crime they may not have committed? No. But it could, perhaps, make it understandable as to how this could have happened. It feels a bit recklessly uncharitable to simply point to racism and demonizing of the law as the only potential driving factors here. Also, it's hypocritically ironic, considering this is a film where the stance is meant to be against jumping to conclusions about people and prematurely slinging around accusations.

And the documentary even zoned in on the press's use of the word "Wilding", suggesting that this was yet another implication of racism. The clear sentiment being that this word was the media's (and, indeed, America's) view of African Americans. That they were somehow innately animalistic, savage, or "wild". However, the very same newspaper headlines they show us were clearly quoting what it was reported that the Five themselves were calling what they were doing that night ("Wilding" was said to be slang for their night of rioting). As per usual, it seems apparent to me that the documentary is trying to shoehorn racism into this; possibly when it wasn't present. Which not only feels intellectually dishonest, but also blatantly irresponsible.


I'll certainly be digging deeper into the real-life story now, to see if there's more I've missed, and I fully intend on watching the Netflix mini-series (discussed in the above clip) that covers this same topic. But, regardless, while I typically love Ken Burns documentaries, the bias and agenda-pushing on this one was just far too heavyhanded for my taste and completely tainted my experience.