Examining Race, Class, and Human Rights through Documentary Film Study

April 05, 2016

Author: Phil Dignan

In keeping with its mission to teach, do, and share documentary work, the Center for Deaf Documentary Studies (CDDS), collaborating with several campus units, co-hosted The Central Park Five panel discussion at the Kellogg Conference Hotel's Swindells Auditorium on March 10, 2016, bringing together one of its filmmakers, David McMahon, and two of the five men featured in the film: Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson.

"Today, we have a unique opportunity to explore issues of race and justice. The Central Park Five documentary compels us to examine bias, assumptions, and shared responsibilities," said Provost Carol Erting in her welcoming remarks. "The film is about a miscarriage of justice, but it was not only the justice system that failed."

Moderator Arlene Ngalle, with support from fellow student Kellynette Gomez, fielded student-submitted questions directed at documentary filmmaking, issues regarding human rights and social justice, and how the film impacted the men known as the "Central Park Five."

The event resulted from a collaboration on a separate project between McMahon and Jean Bergey, associate director of CDDS. McMahon, who has deaf family connections, offered to share The Central Park Five with the campus community. 

In the fall of 2015, Erting, Dr. Genie Gertz, '92, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Gaurav Mathur, dean of the Graduate School and Continuing Studies, sent out a call inviting faculty to integrate The Central Park Five in their classes. At the request of General Studies director, Dr. Leslie Rach, G-'91, CDDS director, Dr. Brian Greenwald, '96, led a discussion during faculty development week on integrating the film in course study. Thirteen faculty members representing various academic disciplines used The Central Park Five as part of their instruction.

The Central Park Five tells the story of the 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem, including Richardson and Santana, were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City's Central Park. Years after serving their prison sentences, the five were exonerated following the confession of a serial rapist; the film allows the five to share their perspectives, and raises important questions about race and class, the failings of the criminal justice system, and the need for legal protections for vulnerable juveniles.  McMahon, along with Sarah Burns, and Ken Burns, co-produced the critically-acclaimed film, which was first released in 2012.

The screening of the film and the panel discussion touched many, including Ngalle and Gomez. "It was an honor to moderate this event," said Ngalle. "Their experiences impacted me. It made me think about my nine-year-old son, who could fall into that trap just because he is dark skinned. Knowing that the New York Police Department never contacted the five men that were exonerated, or tried to right the wrong done to the five, really concerns me."

Integrating the film into their courses, faculty were able to touch on a wide range of topics, and all noticed an impact on students. Usherla DeBerry, '99, and Dr. Risa Shaw, AAS '83, co-teachers of the GSR 300.04: Black Lives Matter course, examined, among other issues related to the case, the role played out by the media.

"I believe this experience has lit a fire to get more information, to look at what something appears to be on the surface with a more critical eye, to question what the media says and how they portray people, and to delve even deeper into the how and why structural racism plays itself out in our society," said Shaw.  She added, "The impact of this experience was profound for the students in our class, and they continue to refer back to the film and the men they met."

"Students felt it was 'close to home.' This was a moving event; not one eye was off the panelists," said DeBerry.

Students in Karen Kenton's Introduction to Documentary Film Studies were able to identify how The Central Park Five was a departure from typical films made by Ken Burns (Burns is known for making the Public Broadcasting System's series Baseball, The Civil War, and the upcoming film Jackie Robinson). Kenton herself has over 25 years of experience in documentary film and public television. Kenton sees potential for future screenings and discussions.

"Audiences experience the film together, share their personal perspectives, learn about local history, and engage in dialogue with their community," said Kenton. "I hope Gallaudet will continue the tradition of bringing the University together through film. There are many powerful documentaries produced each year, and filmmakers will be happy to share their work and insights through this type of campus-wide effort."
 
With President "Bobbi" Cordano's emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and for all stakeholders at Gallaudet to engage in dialogue on these issues, Greenwald sees how this panel discussion, and future film studies, can serve as a platform.

"The Central Park Five event is an example of how Gallaudet is working to bring resources and ideas to campus that challenge us," said Greenwald. "Racism and privilege are hard to discuss. This event demanded that we not shy away from a conversation this campus and our nation needs." 

Along with CDDS, The Central Park Five screening and discussion was sponsored by the Office of the President, Office of Diversity and Equity for Students, College of Arts and Sciences, School of Education, Business and Human Services, Graduate School and Continuing Studies, and Gallaudet Technology Services, along with support from the Gallaudet University Kellogg Conference Hotel.