Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is the poster child for difficult but essential viewing. It’s must-see TV where you’ll want to look away, but it’s imperative that you don’t. For more than four straight grueling hours, this Netflix miniseries reconstructs the gross miscarriage of justice perpetrated against five innocent children known as the Central Park Five and their families in the infamous Central Park jogger case from 1989.
In April of that year, a white woman, Trisha Meili (Alexandra Templer), was viciously raped and beaten while going on a run through Central Park. At the other end of the park, that same night, a large group of black male teenagers was taken into custody for being a public nuisance. In one hasty assumption after another, sex crimes officer and now best-selling author Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) is soon holding these culprits of horseplay as suspects for rape and attempted murder.
The first image of violence against a young boy comes as a shock when a police officer slams his helmet across the face of Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), a child of just 14 years old, still on the shy side of puberty. But soon the brutality becomes procedural as interrogating police officers abuse and coerce these minors into providing false confessions. It is a sickening sight. Step by step, these officers rehearse the rape’s graphic details with the boys, and we watch as their prepubescent mouths form over and repeat the vulgar words they’re force-fed.
By hook or by crook, the NYPD is going to make these boys fit the facts of the case even if the facts of the case don’t fit the boys. DuVernay and her cinematographer, Bradford Young, film their subjects in close-up with an intimate, shallow focus, often through a glacial blue filter. Behind the boys’ faces, the world is nothing but haze, as cold and harsh as ice. They are stranded in the blur, isolated from all warmth and hope. They can’t make sense of their situation. They are trapped in the officers’ tunnel vision, held hostage to the officers’ myopic fixation on their guilt. The media latches onto the same narrative, full of inflammatory, racially coded language, un-vetted facts, and untried conclusions. Before any evidence has been presented, these children have already been condemned.
When They See US
The trial offers a few rare moments of optimism. The prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga), recognizes how flimsy the evidence is and can sense foul play from Fairstein’s handling of the case. The defense attorneys, played by Joshua Jackson, Blair Underwood, and Chris Jackson, are able to poke innumerable holes in the state’s arguments. If this tale had come out of Hollywood, all the redemptive beats are here in order to turn this story around and deliver a modicum of justice. But this is real life, and we know how it ends. These chances at vindication are painfully squandered one after another in a headlong drive toward judicial failing.
But this tragedy doesn’t end at the sentencing. DuVernay stays with these boys as they grow into men behind bars and as they reenter the world 6-12 years later, convicted felons now, registered sex offenders, out of prison but still penned in by a criminal justice system that won’t allow them to succeed. All but one. Korey Wise — played by Jharrel Jerome as both a boy and an adult in an incredible feat of physical and emotional transformation — is denied parole again and again after refusing to admit his guilt in the case. Not until 2002, when the actual rapist confesses and his DNA is matched with that of the assailant are the Central Park Five exonerated and Wise set free.
It would be premature to relegate this episode of racially motivated injustice to the dustbin of history. Too many of its traces still linger in our police forces, in our prisons, in the way racism blinds us to humanity. In one scene, Donald Trump, at the time a mere real estate huckster, appears on television calling for the death penalty for these kids, an echo of the days of lynching and mob justice. A mother of one of the boys is forced to bear witness. “They need to keep that bigot off TV is what they need to do,” she says. In a sad, knowing wink to the audience, DuVernay has another character reply, “Don’t worry about it, his 15 minutes is almost up.” If only.
When They See Us streams on Netflix.