“They were not really understanding what the whole thing was about. Some of them were tricked into believing that if you just say this, we’ll let you go home,” Salaam said. “Everybody came in there and maintained their innocence, up until the fact that they couldn’t take it anymore and thought that it was easier to tell the lie so that they could get out of there and stop it than to continue on telling the truth.”
The film lays out how these five teenagers confessed to and were convicted of a crime that they did not even witness, let alone participate in. “That was the big mystery to us,” McMahon said.
While the film hints at probable civil rights violations, the movie makers do not consider themselves activists. Instead they say they are merely filmmakers who create the vehicle through which the audience can see the story. So far, Burns says, The Central Park Five has been well-received at screenings. “People are outraged, they’re saddened, they’re angry, they feel guilty,” Burns said.
“There has not been a screening where someone does not get up and say, ‘I just want to say that I believed reports in 1989 and assumed you were guilty and I am so sorry,’ ” McMahon said.
Salaam, as well as some of the other CP5, have attended those screenings. He acknowledges that when he finally earned his freedom, the public’s reaction then doesn’t seem to match the outrage now. “There was so much coverage in 1989 and 1990 to convince the public that we were actually guilty of this crime that we didn’t commit,” said Salaam. “When the truth came out in 2002, nobody really covered it the way that they covered it back then.”
In the film, the Rev. Calvin Butts even admits: “A lot of the people in the black community went along with the confession. Many of us were frightened by our own children. Many of us had been pushed around, raped, burglarized, purse snatched, often by young black men.”
The Central Park jogger, Trisha Meili, who endured a 12-day coma and was unable to testify during the original trials, declined to participate in the documentary. The filmmakers also requested interviews with the detectives and prosecutors who worked the case, but were rebuffed. They did, however, hear from the City of New York in the form of a subpoena for outtakes from the film, which they are vigorously fighting.
Salaam and the other four men filed a civil lawsuit in 2003, seeking $50 million in damages. It’s something the city has been fighting ever since. “When you think about it from the perspective of race, this is almost like them trying to punish Ken Burns and company for doing such a tremendous job. They didn’t do anything but tell the truth,” Salaam said. He contends the city is purposely dragging its feet in regard to settling the suit. “I am sure that they probably want us to give up — or pass away.”
No matter what happens with the lawsuit, Salaam claims that they have won an even bigger battle, having the truth come out in the form of a film that all the world can see. Burns said her hope is that the documentary opens a dialogue. “We’re in a postracial society, people say, and I think that this story and others like it are reminders that we’re not,” she concluded. “We still have work to do, and I hope that this can help to start a conversation about that.”
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.