Lynched and Abandoned
I was startled that in her otherwise heartfelt and astute reflection on the case of the Central Park Five [“Diary of a Mad Law Professor,” May 6], Patricia Williams neglected to mention Joan Didion’s exhaustive 1990 New York Review of Books essay on the crime, the trial, the city. From the “abstraction” of the victim to the “swirl of collateral news,” Didion dissected the improbabilities of the commentary and the case. Interestingly, in subsequent discussions of this case, Didion is rarely mentioned. Is this because she is not, to use Williams’s formulation for neglected skeptics, “poor and black and relentlessly mocked in the media as deluded apologists”?
Patricia Williams wonders in “Lessons From the Central Park Five” if the film of that name “would be having the same reception had a black filmmaker made it,” as opposed to Ken Burns et al. The beauty of the film is that Burns lets the boys (now men) tell their story; Burns doesn’t do the telling. The same can be said of Burns’s Jazz. There were complaints from the black community that that movie, too, was made by a white filmmaker, but the musicians told their own story. Both stories were sitting there waiting to be told. Burns let it happen.
My primary concern is what it takes, first, for a narrator to be heard and, second, to be heard as credible. It is true that Joan Didion’s excellent essay has enjoyed renewed attention since the PBS debut of Ken Burns’s The Central Park Five. At the time it was published, however, it was roundly denounced by readers of The New York Review of Books, who decried it in outraged, even vitriolic terms. But at least Didion had the power to get it published; and her literary virtuosity has ensured that it endures in collective memory, if underappreciated. If an artist like Didion faced such resistance to being heard about this case, what chance did the young defendants and their families have?
Furthermore, I vehemently disagree that Burns “doesn’t do the telling.” His great gift is precisely in piecing narratives together beautifully and compellingly and so seamlessly that his skilled editing becomes all but invisible. That said, this was not a story “waiting to be told.” It has and had been told over and over and over—in the courts, in the media, in the streets, in the men’s nearly unremarked exoneration in 2002, as well as in Sarah Burns’s well-reviewed but generally unread book. So Ken Burns didn’t “let the stories be told”; he deployed his exceptional craft to let them be heard, and heard as credible. Burns is undoubtedly one of the best filmmakers who ever lived. But it should not require such a rarefied combination of artistry and (yes, race-gender-class) power to convince citizens to take note of what goes on in the name of our justice system.