In Ava DuVernay’s powerful and astonishing four-part miniseries, “When They See Us”, puts the focus of the story beyond just the obvious racism and systemic injustice to show the emotional toll that injustice took on Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise and their families. The miniseries asks hard questions of its audience by never losing sight of the people of color who were sacrificed at the altar of white fears.
The story begins on April 19, 1989 when a white female jogger is raped and beaten nearly to death in Central Park. At that same time, a group of boys in Harlem were running around the park and in proximity to a couple other assaults that were happening around the same time. The heinousness of the crime and the viciousness of detective Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman, an unintentionally perfect bit of casting as a person who cares more about results than the law) leads to five young men who were in the area being picked pretty much at random–Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome)–and then interrogated at length to point the finger at each other. This gross abuse of power, facilitated by the justice system and the media, leads to the boys being convicted and incarcerated despite no physical evidence linking them to the crime. As adults, Antron (Jovan Adepo), Kevin (Justin Cunningham), Yusef (Chris Chalk), Raymond (Freddy Miyares), try to readjust to life on the outside even though the crime follows them wherever they go. Meanwhile, Korey (Jerome, the only actor to play both his younger and adult versions of the character) weathers a longer jail sentence since he was tried as an adult.
The politics of the story couldn’t be more vivid, but it would probably be a mistake to look at When They See Us as a political document. If you’re going to spend about five hours with this story, chances are you already agree with what’s presented–that the justice system and the media, largely staffed with white people, had no compunction in tossing these five boys–four black and one Hispanic–to the wolves in exchange for the illusion of justice. But if you’re someone who believes that it’s better for 100 innocent people to be convicted rather than risk one guilty person going free, then you’re probably not interested in this case. If you want to believe the system works because it’s always worked for you, then you’re probably not going to watch a miniseries that challenges that presumption.
But a single piece of art usually doesn’t sway the entire populace. The important first step is telling the story and reaching open minds (like the younger viewers who primarily use Netflix as their source of entertainment). While other directors have tackled systemic racial injustice, no one does it as surgically and as powerfully as DuVernay right now. When They See Us plays like a slow-motion, micro version of her terrific documentary 13th, showing the pipeline that funnels young men of color into the prison system because, among other reasons relating to capitalism and history, it makes the white majority feel comfortable. Despite having reasonably competent attorneys for trial, these boys never had a chance. A white woman, a totem of purity and innocence, was attacked near people of color, and those people of color had to suffer. Watching truth and justice be coldly cast aside may not be shocking to some audience, but it’s enraging all the same.
This is not a detached, clinical approach to the story. You can’t miss the indictment of American society, especially when DuVernay weaves in clips of Donald Trump, who took out a full-page ad before the trial even began calling for the death penalty (he has been and always will be a racist who needs attention). But the real focus is on the Central Park Five and their families. You can see that DuVernay cares deeply about these individuals and how this gross miscarriage of justice obliterated their lives. Some may argue that DuVernay paints them as “too saintly”, but I would counter that she’s showing them fairly as children. These were good kids who never had any run-ins with the law, and it didn’t matter because a white system called out for blood. To give the racist refrain of “They were no angels,” is to simply uphold the delusion that we have a fair and impartial justice system despite all evidence to the contrary.
The emotional impact of “When They See Us” cannot be understatood. It’s not easy watching these kids and their families constantly suffer, but it doesn’t feel like DuVernay is scolding the audience as much as demanding their empathy. “This is wrong. You know this is wrong,” When They See Us tells the audience, and watching it unfold, you know you’re watching a horror story.
All of the actors are phenomenal, but special attention has to go to Jerome, who is a revelation as Korey Wise. While the first episode is about the investigation and the arrests, the second episode is the trial, and the third episode focuses on four of the five as adults, the majority of the final episode belongs mostly to Korey. It’s particularly horrific because it shows a sixteen-year old trying to navigate prison. While Part Three shows how hard it is to live life after prison with a conviction hanging over their heads and how society doesn’t really want criminals to reintegrate, Part Four is Korey’s life in prison with only the final half hour showing how the group was exonerated.
Some will probably have some issues with Part Four, and while it does have a few rough edges (there’s a scene involving Korey’s trans sibling who is suddenly made to be a major part of his life even though she’s not really around that much in the previous three parts of the story; there’s also a scene where an unseen speaker spells out the message of the movie, which is unnecessary given how clear the miniseries is), focusing more on Korey’s incarceration than the random justice the Central Park Five found is the point. There was no dogged investigator searching for the truth. There was no public campaign rallying support. It was dumb luck that Korey Wise found himself in prison with the real perpetrator and that the perpetrator freely confessed. At no point was there justice for these five men. They were chosen pretty much at random to pay for a crime they didn’t commit, and just as randomly they were exonerated. That’s a system that doesn’t work unless the point of the system is to incarcerate young boys of color so that white people can feel a little safer.
It’s too late for justice, so the best we can do is our empathy.
@Wizzy, Afro Bodhisattva, Entrepreneur, Physical Anthropologist, Freelance researcher of African Studies, culture, and heritage, CEO Dolomite Aggregates LTD and Founder MBA Métissage Boss Academy . & Métissage SangueMisto.