Black Film Festival Opens Thursday with ‘The Central Park Five’

Mende Nazer
Mende Nazer spent most of her life as a slave in Sudan and for a sudaneese family in London. Photograph by Amit Lennon

It’s unlikely that most people born after the ’70s remember the horrific beating rape of a white woman jogger in Central Park in 1989 and the arrest and incarceration of a group of black and Latino teenagers a year later, known as The Central Park Five. Yusef Salaam, one of the boys, was 15 at the time.

Years later, improved DNA testing indisputably exonerated the five and nailed a convicted murderer in prison as the perpetrator. The  story of the miscarriage of justice hardly captured media attention comparable to what the “wilding” incident ignited, but it did engage the imagination and skills of Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah, co-director and author, who conceived a highly regarded documentary about the pressured convictions and lack of evidence. The Central Park Five was shown on PBS last year and in select theaters. The African American Museum of the East End (AAMEE) is making the documentary the lead-off event at its 8th Annual Black Film Festival. The film will be shown on Thursday, November 7, free, and will be followed by a panel discussion that will include Salaam. The film (and festival as a whole) is very timely and shows how race and class can adversely affect the criminal justice system and deny young Americans their human rights.

Given the extraordinary reception of films like Twelve Years A Slave, not to mention The Butler, and Django Unchained, as well as the current six-part PBS series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, The Central Park Five, as well as another documentary, I Am A Slave (about the abduction and enslavement of then-12-year-old Sudanese Mende Nazer), is sure to be a disturbing but important educational experience, especially for young people, as AAMEE director Brenda Simmons points out. Indeed, Simmons has reached out to local area high schools and is pleased that teachers will be bringing students to the free screening. Earlier, in an informal survey of youngsters, she discovered that many knew nothing about the Central Park Five. Enter AAMEE, whose film festival advances relatively unknown films about the black experience and work by black film producers and directors.

Their larger mission, as Simmons states, is to promote African-American culture and encourage young people “to succeed in school and life” by appreciating their cultural heritage, especially if it has been misinterpreted by mainstream media. On an impassioned note, she says, “the power of our country was based on a foundation that has not only been compromised, but in some sense shattered. It’s time to have the conversation to mend our country to mend our world. And the AAMEE mission with this film festival is to do our small part to tell the story of truth; not necessarily to expose in a negative way, but to show that as human beings, we have more in common, and just want to be loved, respected, and given equal opportunities to live life to the fullest.”

These wider hopes and expectations are reflected in the festival’s full program. Following the Burns documentary, Friday will celebrate black achievement in music by way of “Spoken Word/Live Jazz” with Southampton sax man Charles Certain (Certain Moves) and guest singer Sheree Elder, from Westhamtpon ($20 admission). Saturday, it’s all-day free films, including family fare such as Beat the Drum and Beasts of Southern Wild; a short entitled Tug-A-War; and “Roots Part II,” closing with I Am A Slave.

The 8th Annual Black Film Festival runs November 7, 8, 9 and 10.

Note different locations:

Nov. 7: The Central Park Five at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, 6:30–9 p.m. (in addition to Salaam, panelists include Dr. Anael Alson, award-winning educator; Kyle Braunskill, director of Safe Harbor Prison Mentoring; Audrey Gaines, clinical social worker; and the Rev. Kirk Lyons Sr., founder of Brothers Keepers).

Nov. 8: Spoken Word/Live Jazz at the Southampton Cultural Center, $30, 25 Jobs Lane, 7–9 p.m.

Nov. 9: Free films all day at the Stony Brook Southampton Campus, Duke Lecture Hall, 239 Montauk Highway, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.

Nov. 10: World-premiere documentary by Nigel Nobel, “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall”  and “Voices of Sarafina,” a documentary based on the 1987 Broadway musical, to be shown at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane at 2 p.m. Free.

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