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Review: ‘The Central Park Five’

 

 An imperfect film reminds Americans of chilling crime and those wrongfully convicted

It’s often said that the more you know about something, the less you are apt to like a film about it. So let me state up front that I was living in New York City (in a single room occupancy hotel not far from Central Park, in fact — I went running in the park almost every day), in 1989, so I remember the Central Park jogger case quite well.

In fact, if you lived in the city at the time, it was almost impossible not to hear about the case, including the controversy over the treatment of the young men arrested and later convicted of this crime. The case also received nationwide coverage, as did the fact that someone else later confessed to the crime, and that the Five’s convictions were overturned in 2002.

Apparently most Americans don’t know much about this case, however, and they may be better served than I was by The Central Park Five, a new documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. The film begins with the taped confession of the actual assailant, Matias Reyes, so that there’s never a moment’s doubt that the Five were falsely convicted. The focus of the film is on how it happened — how five young men were arrested, interrogated, confessed, convicted and (much later) exonerated.

It’s a chilling story that points to one conclusion: after this horrific crime (a young woman was raped, severely beaten, and left for dead in the park), the police picked up some young men who were in the vicinity (and, in fact, were part of a large group of young men who had committed several assaults earlier that evening, although this is downplayed in the film), and interrogated and intimidated them until they confessed to the rape and beating of the Central Park jogger.

It’s no secret that police may use various interrogation techniques when they want to get a confession, that the person being questioned may not know his or her rights, and that under pressure, people may confess to all sorts of things they haven’t done. That’s what happened in this case, and when the invented confessions didn’t match, that didn’t cause anyone in authority to question whether something had gone amiss. It also didn’t matter that there was no physical evidence linking the Five to the attack — the confessions were enough to convince a jury.

The Central Park Five is a straightforward documentary consisting primarily of archival footage and talking heads (New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer appears so frequently that he serves as the de facto narrator). It creates a portrait of a city (white and African American alike) terrified of violent teenagers — “wilding” and “wolf pack” are terms particularly associated with 1980s New York — and who focused that fear on the case. The fact that the assault took place in Central Park, as close as you can get to sacred ground for New Yorkers, certainly brought more attention to the case, as did the fact that the victim was white and the accused African American and Hispanic. Those dynamics are not specific to New York, of course, and I’m not sure they’ve changed all that much over the years, but they are part of the story.

The Central Park Five has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, which I find somewhat mystifying — to me it’s a respectable but often tedious film that adds little to what is already well known about this episode. On the other hand, given Americans’ notoriously poor sense of history, maybe they need a refresher course in the facts of this case, and for that purpose The Central Park Five will fill the bill.

Review: ‘The House I Live In’

Maurice Haltiwanger in the film THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, an Abramorama release 2012. Photo courtesy of Samuel Cullman.
Maurice Haltiwanger in the film THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, an Abramorama release 2012. Photo courtesy of Samuel Cullman.

In January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to the dangers of the military-industrial complex, a network of political and economic relationships among politicians, the military, and the defense industry that threatened to become self-perpetuating and independent of criticism or effective oversight by anyone outside this iron triangle.

The subject of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In is a similarly self-perpetuating entity, the prison-industrial complex, as fueled by America’s so-called “War on Drugs.” The facts are shocking to anyone outside this triangle of politicians, correctional institutions, and private contractors:

  • The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
  • Today, more people in the United States are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes in 1970.
  • One in eight state employees today works for a corrections agency.
  • About 14 percent of drug users in the United States are African American, but 56 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes are African American.

Any reasonable person, faced with these statistics, might well wonder what is going on. How is it, in an era when many state and local governments are strapped for cash to provide basic services to their constituents, there is still money to arrest people for nonviolent drug offenses (more than 82 percent of drug arrests in 2007 were for possession) and build new prisons to house them? Why does the burden of this war fall so disproportionately on African Americans? And how is it, after 40 years, with more than 45 million arrests and $1 trillion in expenditures, illegal drugs are at least as available in the nation as they were when Richard Nixon first declared war on them in 1971?

Teasing out these answers is Jarecki’s concern in The House I Live In, which finds the roots of American drug laws in racism. Time and time again, rather than directly attack the rights of people viewed as outsiders, politicians found it more politically expedient to criminalize habits associated with them.

So opium was a legal drug in the United States until the turn of the 20th century, when anti-opium laws became a means to attack Chinese immigrant communities. Hemp was an ordinary crop until marijuana became associated with Mexican laborers who, like the Chinese, competed with white Americans for jobs. In the 1980s, national hysteria over crime led to laws that penalized offenses involving crack cocaine (associated with poor African Americans living in the inner cities) far more severely than offenses involving similar amounts of powder cocaine (associated with white people living in the suburbs).

Jarecki’s personal window into the human consequences of America’s war on drugs, initiated by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, is provided in the person of Nanny Jeter, a now elderly woman who served as the Jarecki’s housekeeper when Eugene and his siblings were growing up. One of Jeter’s sons died of drug-related causes, and as Jarecki tries to understand why this young man’s life turned out so differently from his own, he calls upon many expert witnesses who offer their views of America’s drug laws.

There’s no confusion about Jarecki’s point of view in The House I Live In— he’s out to make the case that America’s drug laws cause far more damage, to individuals and communities, than drug use ever has. But what is surprising is the variety and number of people he found who were willing to share their personal experiences in America’s drug war.

The testimony of academic experts (Gabor Maté, Carl Hart), activists (Mark Mauer, Michelle Alexander), and  journalists (Charles Bowden, David Simon, the latter also known as the creator of HBO’s The Wire) are expected in this type of documentary, but when prison officials, guards and a federal judge are willing to say on camera that the system isn’t working, you have to wonder why it continues.

Jarecki finds some of the explanation in the generally impermeable nature of the prison-industrial complex, but also finds plenty of blame to lay at the feet of the ordinary Americans who facilitate the current system. Politicians know that claiming to be “tough on crime” and “tough on drugs” resonates with voters, while suggesting that other approaches (treatment, education) might produce better results is tantamount to handing the election to your opponent. Any policy that threatens to reduce the prison population also threatens to undermine the economic survival of communities in which a prison job is the best job available.  The main burden of the current system falls on poor, non-white people, and they’re not the most politically-influential group of individuals, so it’s easy to overlook their suffering. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo once said, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

The House I Live In won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and opened in theaters in October. More information about the film, and the issues it covers, are available from the official website: http://www.thehouseilivein.org/.

Book Review: ‘Born, Not Raised’ by Susan Madden Lankford

The most engaging elements came from the kids themselves.

Scrawled on the bottom of handouts, the backs of postcards or between the lines of wrinkled notebook paper, the writings from the kids in a San Diego-area juvenile hall provide a window into much more than just their mind and soul.

“I Really don’t Remember my childhood because I’ve tried so hard to block it out,” Brown, a 16-year-old girl inmate, wrote as part of an assignment “Born, Not Raised” author Susan Madden Lankford handed out. “The earliest memory I have is at the age of 11 when I was malested by my grandfather.”

Some wrote elegantly, poetically even, with a form that can only come from practice and attention in literature class – or perhaps just attending class at all. Others struggled to string together coherent sentences, or express their ideas and feelings in terms that could be understood. More often than not, the writings were dotted with misspellings and poorly executed penmanship.

Even from the one line, fill-in-the-blank answers that seemed common response on the author’s worksheets, the reader is offered a peek into a world seldom visited by those not forced to live it.

Worksheet question #8: If you have one wish to change something in your life, what would it be?

Joseph Minton, 16: “my mom and dad’s drug uses.”

For these kids, it was (and is) reality. Some never had a parent to teach them to read and write, or time to perfect their skills. Some were happier to find a bed in juvenile hall than return to their turbulent home lives. Others couldn’t wait to hit the streets again, with no plans to change the habits that landed them in the clink in the first place. Of course, each story is unique and impossible to sum up in a nicely worded paragraph, or even an entire book, but as you travel through the oversized pages of “Born, Not Raised,” an unmistakable pattern begins to emerge.

Spanning the course of two years, photojournalist and author Susan Madden Lankford paid weekly visits to the juvenile delinquents of San Diego, with her college-aged daughter in tow. She discovered that these kids, the juvenile delinquents, were much more than the label implied. They were ordinary people, not unlike teens across the nation, struggling with and searching for many of the same things as their peers.

The book is amazingly insightful about the lives, minds and challenges faced by many young people on the brink of criminal enterprise. But it isn’t a work of photojournalism or engaging literature, as one might hope.

Lankford, an award-winning photographer and photojournalist, starts by detailing the many hurdles and meetings it took to gain access to the other side of the metal doors at the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility in suburban San Diego.  She pulled it off, obviously, but early on you’re disappointed to learn that bringing the camera along was out of the question. So, we rely on the kids to paint a picture of their own realities.

Focusing predominantly on female inmates, the book chronicles the life of a small group of young offenders as they make their way in and out of state custody – leaving the narrative at the detention door. Lankford is searching for the reason, searching for the connection between life events, development and what led these kids to varying degrees of disruptive and destructive existences – often a tale of broken families, drugs, violence and ultimately, incarceration.

She largely drives the story through the guidance and professional insight of child-adolescent psychiatrist Diane Campbell. Throughout the book, Lankford offers short reprieves from the tireless Q&A-style transcriptions of interviews with the kids, Campbell and other professionals with brief paragraphs and introductions designed to move the narrative forward – forcefully at times.

Billed as a work of photojournalism and anthropology, the book is stuck somewhere between academic research and raw dialogue. The size of the sampling and the resulting work does indeed provide strong insight into the inner workings of troubled teenage minds, but can hardly be classified as anything more than a slice of the big picture.

Lankford, with Campbell’s supporting expertise, makes a strong correlation between early childhood development and teenage delinquency, pushing solid parenting as the best deterrent to criminal activity. But the flow becomes stilted as the author tries to transition from one Q&A session to the next, doing her best to stick in interesting details and set the scene with little more than a few paragraphs at a time.

Ultimately, you get the feeling you’re being led from one room to the next, hearing only the dialogue and exchanges that further the child development argument. At times the connection between the teens being interviewed and the broader insight Campbell dishes out is terrifyingly poignant, but by over-directing the conversation Lankford manages to oversimplify and cast doubts on her own argument. Often the interviews with officials in the juvenile justice system seem disconnected from the expert opinion and overall arc of the story. At the least, other factors that contribute to disruptive juvenile behavior are given much less weight by the author than early childhood development, while they seem to matter more – much more at times – to the staffers working with the kids.

By the end, each chapter had turned into a struggle, with more insight coming from the teen’s work than the writing itself. Parenting, especially in the early years, definitely plays a major role in childhood and life development. What you see from the kids, however, is not the gearing of hardened criminals – although some are in the making – but a yearning for stability, family and above all else, love.

For all the dull moments, “Born, Not Raised” is worth the read for anybody directly dealing with at-risk or troubled youth, or simply looking for an avenue into the peculiarities of the teenage psyche. Yes, times may change, but the foundation of what it means to be human remains unshaken.

“Take care of your kids cause it sucks when on one cares,” 15-year-old inmate, Yale, wrote.

From Graffiti to Fine Art: KAWS at the High

KAWS installation of 27 circular paintings at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March, 2012.

KAWS tryptic installation at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March 2012.Kaws "DOWN TIME" at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March, 2012.KAWS "DOWN TIME" exhibit at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March 2012.KAWS "DOWN TIME" exhibit at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March 2012. When a Jersey City teenager started tagging and defacing public advertisements back in the early 1990’s, he had no clue it would turn into a lucrative art career. But that’s the story of Brian Donnelly, better known as “KAWS,” that has led him to a multi-sight exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.

Perched on the top floor above the High’s Picasso to Warhol exhibit, KAWS’ installment “DOWN TIME” seems to bring the Modernism housed in the levels below into the modern times they helped create.

His work is strange, yet strikingly familiar, and why wouldn’t it be? It’s essentially a commentary on pop-culture, drawn from pop culture and stamped on pop culture -– it has become pop culture. KAWS has taken on the manipulation (or perhaps re-imagination) of such iconic characters as Mickey Mouse, The Simpsons and Sponge Bob Square Paints. His street-art style dots urban encampments around the globe and offers imagery virtually every culture can relate to.

The High exhibition features a number of these icons, including a 16-foot tall sculpture of Mickey Mouse-like sculpture dubbed “Companion” in the museum’s piazza. A florescent color palette and tight cropped compositions of cartoonish features make a gridded install of 27 round paintings pop off the wall with a questioning familiarity. The images appear as if part of a larger story and narrative unfolding just out of frame (or on your TV screen at home) as you go on about your life, from advertisement to advertisement.

As the young artist gained popularity back in the ‘90s, his subversive images -- scrawled on billboards, bus stops and phone booths -- became hot commodities. Eventually, this work would prove to be a precursor to actual collaboration with commercial photographers and brands.

When KAWS met British photographer David Sims, who happened to have shot a number of the ad campaigns KAWS had worked on top of, a few years back it was the start of a series that would find its way to the walls of the High. KAWS took his acrylic paints to Sims’s actual photos, producing a unique infusion of two rival forms of accepted popular culture that constituted a sizable portion of his installment at the High.

Since the early days, KAWS has also branched out from graffiti -– far out. He doesn’t even do graffiti anymore, at least not on city walls, but the elements of his youth are unmistakable and irreplaceable in his work. Simply put, KAWS has his hands in everything from limited-edition vinyl toys and t-shirt design to fine art painting and sculpting. That also puts him at the crossroads of a variety of different worlds. For toy collectors he’s the toy maker, for graffiti artists he’s the street artist, for art aficionados he’s the painter.

Yet somehow his work finds a strange continuity between distinct groups with unique tastes, in the United States and abroad. In this ever more interconnected world it’s entirely possible, more than anything else, that KAWS’ work illustrates we’re all part of a global culture, transversing borders and long standing notions of what individuality and uniqueness actually are.

KAWS: DOWN TIME” will be on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta until May 20, 2012.

iPhoneography credits: Clay Duda/JJIE.


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KAWS "Companion," 16-feet tall sculpture at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March 2012.