Starting today, New Yorkers will have an unprecedented opportunity to see two uniquely hard-hitting documentaries on race relations in the U.S. at Maysles Cinema in Harlem, one of the crown jewels of the nation’s most famous Black neighborhood. As a team, Albert and David Maysles were documentary filmmakers, whose work encompassed a wide variety of topics, from the hustling bible salesmen of the 1968 “Salesman” to the Rolling Stones concert flick “Gimme Shelter”. The younger brother David died of a stroke at the age of 55 in 1987. Now 86, Albert Maysles is still going strong. Only two years ago Albert served as director of photography on Oliver Stone and Tariq Ali’s “South of the Border”, a real inspiration to me as a 67-year-old aspiring Vimeo auteur. If Albert Maysles can gallivant around in the thin air of the Andes, then I should have twenty good years ahead of me as well.
The best thing you can say about “The Central Park Five” and “The Loving Story” is that they are the sorts of films that David Maysles must gaze upon with admiration from his perch in filmmaker’s heaven. They do him proud. Starting today and running through the 29th, “The Central Park Five” is a study of the naked racism of New York’s police department, district attorney’s office, and mass media collaborating together to carry out an act of injustice that is no exaggeration to compare to the Emmett Till case. As Malcolm X said in a 1964 speech: “America is Mississippi. There’s no such thing as a Mason-Dixon line—it’s America.”
“The Loving Story” is also a study of prosecutorial racism, in this instance the 1958 conviction of Richard Loving and his wife Mildred for violating the miscegenation laws in Virginia. Richard was white, and Mildred was an ethnic mixture of Black and American Indian. They were simple, rural people not at all interested in becoming civil rights activists but they insisted on the right to live as husband and wife in Virginia. Their case went up to the Supreme Court and in 1967 their legal victory had the effect of wiping such Jim Crow laws off the books everywhere except Alabama, which finally relented in 2000. When watching the film, you cannot but help be reminded of the struggle to legalize gay marriage—another seemingly “normal” ambition that strikes at the heart of American backwardness. “The Loving Story” opens on December 10th and runs through the 16th.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about “The Central Park Five” is that Ken Burns directed it. To me Burns is the Steven Spielberg of documentary films, focused on “feel good” narratives about uncontroversial subjects such as jazz or baseball that are calculated to serve as cinematic comfort food to PBS audiences. With such a powerfully engaged work like this to his credit, it should encourage everybody—including me—to check out his PBS series on the Dust Bowl now in progress.
The story of Burns’s decision to make such a film is most interesting. A New York magazine article starts off:
“They’re so full of shit,” says Ken Burns, railing against lawyers for New York, the city that’s been the glamorous star of so many of his documentaries. “The outrage that I feel comes from the fact that people were readily willing to sacrifice the lives of five young men, that they were expendable, that they’re still stuck in a lie, and that the institutional protectionism continues.”
The idea for the film came from his daughter Sarah:
It was her project from the start. Sarah met two of the Central Park Five back in 2003, when she was a Yale undergrad interning at a law firm that was preparing their civil case. Casting around for a senior-thesis topic in American studies, she wound up with a 50-pager on the media’s use of racial tropes in covering the case. Newspapers had coined the dubious term wilding to describe the “wolf pack” of 30-odd kids that had roamed the park that April night, beating and mugging passersby. (Other teens were convicted of lesser crimes; the Five were part of that group but probably not ringleaders.)
I have vivid memories of the incident that occurred back in 1989. I used to run along the same path that the jogger took and slowed down on 102nd Street to see the placards, candles and flowers left there by people who felt remorse over what happened to her. Like many New Yorkers, I began to worry about being attacked myself. This was a period in the city when the crime rate was much higher, largely a result of the crack epidemic that the film alludes to. When the five teenagers were arrested, the city saw this as just another instance of an out-of-control Black and Latino community. Just as Mayor Dinkins was accused of favoring his own race by creating the conditions that allowed a Jew to be stabbed during riots in Brooklyn, the “wilding” in Central Park was largely attributed to a breakdown of law and order. Shortly after the youths were arrested, Donald Trump paid for full-age ads in the city’s four daily newspapers urging the reinstatement of the death penalty—the only thing that could put a dent in what was implicitly a Black and Latino assault on white people.
As stated in the New York magazine article, the Central Park Five were involved with crimes in the park that evening but nothing more than physical attacks on white people. In a city so polarized back in 1989, such attacks were widespread and bidirectional. For example, if a Black or Latino accidentally wandered into an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn late at night, the consequences would be the same. It was their misfortune, however, to be arrested on the very evening when an investment banker was being savaged to the point of near death. The cops were under pressure to find the culprits and they would do.
A word must be said about Mahnola Dargis’s despicable review in the New York Times. She faulted the film for not telling the whole story:
[T]he Voice printed an investigation by Barry Michael Cooper that quoted residents of a housing complex across from Schomburg Plaza who identified several of the accused teenagers as belonging to a group of sometimes violent neighborhood troublemakers. Some of the accusations involved the usual kid stuff, like making noise, but there were also brutal attacks. A lengthy New York magazine cover article several months later also detailed violence.
The problem with this is that none of the youth were convicted of any crimes nearly so brutal as the rape and near-murder of the jogger. Furthermore, we have no access to the articles Dargis cites so we have no way of evaluating her take on what was written. Maybe this is her way of exculpating her employer that had this to say in the days following the arrests:
The ferocity of the attack – the repeated beatings, the use of a pipe as a weapon, the serial rapings – sets it apart, too. Every attack, every rape, particularly by gangs, is vicious; but this one suggests a sort of mindlessness, not so much an indifference to pain and suffering – to humanity, that is – as a rather joyful ignorance of it, as when a cat torments a mouse. But these assailants and this victim were not dumb beasts.
That’s from an op-ed piece by Tom Wicker, arguably the paper’s most liberal columnist. If that is what he was writing, you can imagine the racist vitriol in the pages of the Daily News and the Post.
Five young men spent seven years and upward for a crime that they did not commit. It was a miscarriage of justice that in some ways is reminiscent of the West Memphis Three case in Arkansas, when three outsiders were convicted of a murder solely on the basis that they were devil-worshippers. It is frightening to think that a Black or brown skin can amount to the same kind of offense in “civilized” New York. The Central Park Five will be in attendance at the Sunday matinee and I strongly urge you to buy tickets for that showing or any other for that matter. This film is on the inside track for my nomination for best documentary of 2012.
If you spotted Richard Loving in person sans identification, you’d look for the nearest getaway. With his blond crew cut and his passion for drag racing, the first thing that comes to mind is redneck, if not a suspicion that he was behind the drive to ethnically cleanse his rural village of a mixed-raced couple, if not worse. That his face screams out Klansman but in fact conceals the soul of an unprejudiced human being serves up the same lesson to be drawn from Ken Burns’s documentary but positively. You can’t rely on stereotypes.
Richard and Muriel knew each other from an early age. As they put it in Nancy Buirski’s hugely inspiring documentary, whites and Blacks lived among each other in their village and saw nothing wrong with hanging out together. Indeed, some of the most interesting recollections about Richard, who died in an auto accident in 1975, came from Black friends who worked on cars with him.
After they were wed, the last thing that the Lovings intended was to be some kind of Rosa Parks taking on the racist establishment. But when the local cop, an avowed racist, entered their bedroom in 1958 shining a flashlight in their eyes to inform them that they were breaking Virginia’s race laws, they refused to accept society’s verdict.
In exchange for a suspended sentence, they had to agree to leave the state of Virginia. After moving to Washington, they were never happy with urban life and yearned to return home. Eventually they found themselves represented by Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop whose reflections on the case permeate the film. Both are interesting characters in their own right as the press notes indicate. Cohen was born in 1934 and became involved with the case through a referral from the ACLU. Hirschkop has been involved with constitutional rights cases throughout his life and has been chief counsel of PETA since it began. More intriguingly—and going against stereotypes—he is also an ex-Green Beret.
This was Nancy Buirski’s debut film and as such an auspicious step into the world of documentary, a key element of the struggle for social justice in America today—as important in many ways as Iskra was to the fight against Czarism. When some on the left complain about our impotence, they need to be reminded of the role of people like Sarah Burns and Nancy Buirski who are leading the charge against injustice using the camera as a sword.