If you’re like me, you probably don’t want to watch Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. You know seeing yet another tale of systematic injustice levied against Black people by our justice system will lead to anger, hate, and tears and you don’t want to go down that road. You’ve lived on that block all your life and you’re tired of being emotionally drained by the injustice of it all.
On Friday, I decided I was going to protect my peace. But by Saturday, I found myself on the couch pressing play.
I knew what I was getting myself into and I got exactly that. I was angry. I felt hate. I cried. But ultimately, where I ended is grateful to and in awe of Ava DuVernay’s brilliance for having the courage to take on this story and for how well she accomplished it.
When They See Us is a four-part series retelling the stories of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, five 14-16 year old Black boys from Harlem who were coerced into confessing and convicted of the assault and rape of a white woman in Central Park in 1989.
Going in, I thought I knew about the “Central Park Five“. I knew they were innocent, that the most crucial years of their childhoods were stolen from them, and that our justice system failed them. But I didn’t know how it all happened–or that the woman leading the case, Linda Fairstein, head of the Manhattan Sex Crime Unit at the time, was penning bestselling crime novels during Iand even after their convictions were overturned. I didn’t realize the bestselling author who purchased and autographed a copy of her own book as a gift to me for helping her one day in Barnes & Noble was that same woman. Until this weekend when I googled her name.
In her series, DuVernay deftly shows viewers how each of these boys were railroaded by Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) and her team of officers who played the each boy against the other with promises of being able to go home after they confessed and questioned the minors without adults present. We’re given an unflinching look at a woman, so set on concocting her narrative, that she dehumanizes kids and manipulates evidence to reach her end goal. Scenes of the boy’s questioning are artistically juxtaposed with their brief moment of joy as they gleefully ran through Central Park–free and uninhibited–disrupting other parkgoers along their route before things turned sour.
The second part of the series highlights another villain in this story. The media. Depictions of the boys in the media as being a gang, fatherless, and attacking people for the fun of it turned those outside of their community against them.
“Details didn’t matter because there was no script. They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference, and ignorance. They were coming from a land of no fathers. They were coming from the wild province of the poor, and driven by a collective fury brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teeming with the violent images of the streets in the movies. They had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich…Their enemies were white.”
“Wilding. New York City police say that’s new teenage slang for rampaging in wolf packs, attacking people just for the fun of it.”
‘You better believe that I hate the people that took this girl and raped her brutally. You better believe it.’
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The negative portrayals, which left the boys feeling isolated and defeated, also caused rifts within their families. Feelings of guilt and helplessness kept many of their families from visiting them. For those that did show up, it bonded them. We see that bonding with Yusef and his mother after he tells her he feels as if everybody in the world hates him.
“I know if feels like that but I love you enough to make up for everybody. All I do all day is love you. Don’t ever think you’re alone. I’m walking through this with you. You cry, I cry. You mad, I’m mad. You scared, I’m scared. You free, I’m free. You and me always.”
While Antron, Kevin, Yusef, and Raymond struggle to adapt to life in juvenile detention in the third episode, DuVernay does not shy away in her depiction of the brutality Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome) endured in adult prisons from both inmates and guards. Giving Wise’s physical and mental abuse an entire episode of its own allows DuVernay to take the time needed to really showcase the savagery of placing an innocent child in an adult facility with seasoned inmates. While there were many great performances by the cast, including Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams, and John Leguizamo, it is Jerome (playing both the teen and adult version of Wise) whose performance will leave you wrecked like none other and will likely earn him several well-deserved award nominations.
DuVernay’s When They See Us brings a well-crafted visual element to Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Raymond and Korey’s story that will resonate at a time when these still occurring injustices are discussed and judged on the much grander stage of social media. This series may not undo what was done but it will likely restore a fragment of their stolen innocence in a way that couldn’t be done two decades ago.
When They See Us is available to stream on Netflix.
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