8 July 2013

CENTRAL PARK FIVE (Dir. Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon, 2013, US) - Folk Devils

The re-telling of any kind of past brings with it a complicated reality since remembering and reaching back relies on a diachronic process in which memories are subjected to varying degrees of emotional, ideological experiences. Central Park Five is a documentary about the past and it mounts a revisionist account of events, bringing to light the wrongful conviction of five youths in New York for the rape and assault of an investment banker who was jogging in Central Park. Filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns  & David McMahon explore the semantics of an unethical media and a racial bias predicated on a hunger for controversy, sensationalism and the preservation of a status quo. Most telling is the final section in which a historian argues the arrest and trial of the Central Park Five was amplified by the media as aberrant whereas their subsequent release and overturning of the original convictions, many years later, got very little media attention. Why? Simply put, race determines the way institutions like the media and police operate and react to certain groups of people. The argument regarding racism is not a particularly revelatory observation but it is a story that needs telling, especially in an age in which racism has all but disappeared from the news agenda, replaced by a thirst for terrorist led new stories. 

The filmmakers are particularly interested in the role played by the media and police in demonising the black youths, recalling a chronology of racist oppression stretching back centuries. The unsaid collusion between the police and media not only imagined a narrative in which the youths were projected as monsters but white middle class anxieties in a Reaganite era of rampant excess displaced actual social problems into a news story that re-presented an enemy, the young black ‘wilding’ male, as a recognisable folk devil. The documentary is powerful in connecting with a disparaging 1980s social reality about a capitalist system of exclusion that prefers to reinforce racial myths concerning the black male’s sexual threat to the white America as one of the most consistent and insidious of hegemonic racial constructions. It is the cultural potency of this myth, the black man as folk devil, that permitted the media/police to naturalise and normalise a narrative based on ingrained prejudices. The refusal of the police and District Attorney to be interviewed for the documentary is evidence enough of their guilt. By interviewing the five men who were wrongly convicted is a moving catharsis and the attempts to restore a dignity which was nightmarishly stripped away from them testifies to the way the documentary medium can still be a vehicle for expiation.


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