Miscarriages of justice
by David Lamble
In The Central Park Five, acclaimed documentary producer Ken Burns, creator of meticulous oral-history chronicles on how race has impacted American history – The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz – Sarah Burns and David McMahon zoom in on a terrible night in 1989 New York City. Race relations, a powerful elite's paranoia about "crime in the streets," an unaccountable criminal justice system, a racially insensitive mayor, and a bombastic tabloid media combined to concoct a "judicial lynching" of five multi-racial teens.
The doc chillingly illustrates why innocent kids would "confess" to a crime they had no knowledge of, the brutal rape/near-homicide of a white female jogger. We're shown how even the introduction of exonerating DNA evidence failed to set the record straight for a public addicted to getting news in "a New York minute." Burns and Raymond Santana, one of the five men hoping to have their innocence acknowledged and their dignity restored, sat down with me in conversation before Central Park Five 's Bay Area commercial release.
David Lamble: Does New York City not have a victim's compensation law?
Ken Burns: The city has done almost everything they can to delay this thing. They do not see wrongful convictions as victims. They don't want to admit a mistake. It's so interesting that this whole story hinges on the worst person involved, a rapist and murderer, having a conscience, but could we also add the media into this. The media, the police and the prosecutors have not seen it in themselves to issue any extensive mea culpa about it. There's closure in their lives when the city owns up to its culpability.
The New York media is much more ideologically polarized then when I grew up there.
All of those columnists got it wrong: they all failed to challenge the story that the police and the prosecutors fed, that it was a "night of wilding," this new terminology, that they were doing it "for the fun of it," and the upshot is that five human beings had their humanity robbed. They were reduced to two-dimensional, evil figures, and didn't have any chance to defend themselves. It's now 23 years later, and we're trying at least to say, here is a factual look at what actually happened. We do it from the point of view of the five who were never given a point of view, and that's what our film is.
[Lamble to Raymond Santana:] Talk about your involvement with the film.
Raymond Santana: We met Sarah [Burns] in 2002, and [eventually] she asked us if she could write a book. And by that time we had developed a trustful relationship, so we knew that she was going to tell the truth and look for the facts. We never knew her father was Ken Burns, we only knew her as Sarah, our friend. The book was great, I read it in one night. This was an opportunity to be heard: to let people see we were not the rapists, not urban terrorists, that we were just five kids who had been through a real injustice.
Killing Them Softly.
Experts now argue that eyewitness testimony and "so-called confessions" can be extremely unreliable. Describe your experience.
I get that question a lot: "How come people confess to things they didn't do?" What you have to look at is the facts: we were 14, we were never involved with the law, and these [cops] were seasoned veterans, the elite of the police force. These guys know how to do this in their sleep. It was just a matter of time before we cracked. (Now playing.)
Killing Them Softly Richard Jenkins is the consummate character actor, the dude who's made a career out of breathing fresh life into the old joke, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." That's what he did as AIDS researcher Dr. Marcus Conant in the TV movie of gay reporter Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On. Gay film fans may recall his LSD-tripping Federal lawman in Flirting with Disaster, or his deceased dad of a gay undertaker in Six Feet Under.
In the brutal, mordantly funny gangland saga Killing Them Softly from director Andrew Dominik, Jenkins is a button-down mob bagman who speaks in euphemisms about who the big bosses want rubbed out. Picture Jenkins as one of the Watergate "follow-the-money guys," a suit who shields the bosses from getting their hands bloody. Jenkins needs to sweet-talk a motormouth hitman – another home-run for Moneyball star Brad Pitt – into giving the mob a volume discount, cutting his normal per-murder fee in a down economy.
Jenkins' anonymous sedan operates like the psychiatrist's office in The Sopranos. First there's the usual pleasure-denying rules. "Please don't smoke in my car!" Then it's down to business with Pitt's Jackie, who asks, "You ever killed anyone?"
"It can get touchy-feely."
"They cry, they plead, they piss themselves, they call for their mothers. It's embarrassing. I like to kill them softly, from a distance, not close enough for feelings."
The movie comes with a rich crime-fiction pedigree, adaptation from a George V. Higgins novel. Higgins gets credit for reinventing hoodlum fiction with his 70s classic The Friends of Eddie Coyle. On film a laconic late-career turn for Robert Mitchum, Coyle is a leisurely stroll through the last days of a petty thief, with enough poetic detail for a pulp Ulysses.
In Killing, guys living through violence-shortened lives with childish monikers – Jackie, Frankie, Mickey – make insanely bad choices. Scoot McNairy is a misfit with a drug-addled buddy, Russell (scene-stealer Ben Mendelsohn), who cut their own throats by robbing a mob-sanctioned card game. Dominik induces almost Vertigo -like tension as the idiot stickup guys flee the crime scene only to meet up with Jackie's Mr. Death.
Dominik overplays the hoodlum metaphors to bigger-picture money woes – we see Bush/Obama 2008 bailout brinksmanship on a bar TV. But fans of his 2007 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will find he's still showing for whom crime pays in America. (Now playing.)