It was only a matter of time before filmmaker Ava DuVernay proved herself a force to be reckoned with following her explosive entrance onto the Netflix stage with 13th. And with the announcement that the director now has another politically-charged documentary in the online streaming pipeline, she's ready to ruffle some feathers.
Set to write and direct a five-episode limited series, the filmmaker will be bringing to light the complex case that saw a group of teenagers wrongfully convicted of assaulting and raping Trisha Meili in Central Park back in 1989. And guess who was spearheading the charges and calling for their executions? The rambunctious real estate mogul that 2016 American voters elected to be their President. In a statement announcing her latest #Netflix project, DuVernay said:
"I had an extraordinary experience working with Netflix on 13th and am overjoyed to continue this exploration of the criminal justice system as a narrative project. The story of the men known as Central Park Five has riveted me for more than two decades. In their journey, we witness five innocent young men of color who were met with injustice at every turn—from coerced confessions to unjust incarceration to public calls for their execution by the man who would go on to be the president of the United States."
For a woman who has never shied away from letting her feelings toward the man currently splayed out in the White House known, the Netflix series will undoubtedly be her deepest stab at the POTUS. That's because way before Donald Trump was branding all Mexicans as "rapists," calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States and projecting his complete disregard for the health of our planet, his tiny fingers were shamefully pushing for the gross miscarriage of justice regarding the Central Park Five. Here's their story.
Who Were The Central Park Five?
On the night of April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old investment banker was running through Manhattan's Central Park around 9pm when she was assaulted and raped, leaving her so badly beaten that by the time she was found hours later she had lost three quarters of her blood. Trisha Meili then lay in a coma for 12 days.
The horrendous case — which shocked New York to the core and became one of the most widely publicized US crimes of the '80s — swiftly pointed the finger at five teenagersfor having committed the atrocities. Four boys were black, one was of Hispanic descent and their names were Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise.
The media went wild, branding the youths as animals and a "roving gang" of "crazed misfits." Meanwhile behind bars, under hours of aggressive interrogations (including violent beatings), the teenagers were coerced by the police detectives to confess to the crimes despite initially pleading innocence. The fact that their statements were inconsistent and that none of their DNA correlated with the evidence found on Meili's body was ignored.
One of the youngsters — Yusef Salaam — would later recall as an adult:
"I would hear them beating up Korey Wise in the next room. They would come and look at me and say: 'You realise you’re next.' The fear made me feel really like I was not going to be able to make it out."
Like many young men of color before them, the teens were merely at the wrong place at the wrong time. Thanks — in part — to racially biased coverage of the worrying surge in New York crime during the late '80s, many people felt that five adolescent teenagers of African-American and Latino heritage perfectly fit the bill of what a criminal should look like.
'They Should Be Executed For Their Crimes'
Two weeks after the wrongful arrest of the five young men, New York's most high-profile real estate mogul then decided to aggressively weigh in on the case, forking out a reported $85,000 on newspaper advertisements that called for the reinstatement of the death penalty. From his luxury Fifth Avenue residence, #DonaldTrump ran stories under the headline "Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!," writing:
"I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence."
Calling for the youngsters to die, the media frenzy surrounding the crime was re-ignited at a frightening rate. The minors were paraded around like farm animals, their families received death threats and hordes of white supremacists called for the swift reinstatement of the death penalty. An unbelievable hysteria ensued following Trump's declaration:
"Let's all hate these people because maybe hate is what we need if we are going to get something done."
'He Poisoned The Minds Of New York'
A year later, and despite pleading "not guilty" at trial — and the fact that a recovered Meili couldn't recall any of them being present at the attack — all five boys were sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison. Later, Michael Warren — a NY civil rights lawyer who eventually represented the Central Park Five — would call out the rampant racial discrimination that Trump's damaging advertisements encouraged, saying:
"He poisoned the minds of many people who lived in New York and who, rightfully, had a natural affinity for the victim. Notwithstanding the jurors’ assertions that they could be fair and impartial, some of them or their families, who naturally have influence, had to be affected by the inflammatory rhetoric in the ads."
Then suddenly, a serial rapist called Matias Reyes — already serving a life sentence in the same prison as Korey Wise — came forward, admitting that he had actually been the perpetrator of Meili's horrific assault. DNA testing swiftly confirmed this, allowing each Central Park Five conviction to be dropped by the supreme courts. 14 years later in 2014 and the wrongly accused men were exonerated with a $41 million settlement from the New York City authorities.
Yet, as all eyes turned back to Donald Trump — now legitimately eagle-eyeing the 2016 presidency — there was to be no apology. Here was a man who had essentially called for the blood of innocent schoolchildren on the front pages of the world's media, but who — after being proven wrong — still refused to buy their innocence in a bizarre rejection of scientific facts.
Learning nothing and unwilling to admit fault, Trump instead struck back in an ill-informed opinion piece, writing:
"My opinion on the settlement of the Central Park Jogger case is that it’s a disgrace. [...] Settling doesn’t mean innocence, but it indicates incompetence on several levels. Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels."
'He Has Not Changed His Position Of Being A Hateful Person'
Indeed, Ava DuVernay's documentary will challenge many things — it will look at the failure of the police force, the corrupt law courts, the feverish media coverage, the ever-present racial divisions in society and the prejudices of its people. However, above all perhaps, the Netflix show is set to challenge the unrepentant man who took it upon himself to incite this harrowing injustice and who continues to spew this hateful rhetoric from one of the most powerful positions in the world.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Yusef Salaam was correct to suggest that, just as we were scared back then, we should be scared now:
"[...] He has not changed his position of being a hateful person, he has not changed his position of inciting people, [...] he’s still the same person and in many ways he has perfected his sense of being that number-one inciter."
Ultimately, the guy who once said "maybe hate is what we need" is now the President. Quite frankly, Ava DuVernay's 2019 Netflix series could not be coming at a better time.
Were you already familiar with Donald Trump's involvement in the Central Park Five case?