Ava DuVernay pulls no punches in coloring a heartbreaking picture of the ugliness of injustice in Netflix’s new series When They See Us. This is based on a true story of teens who didn’t stand a chance against a fractured society infected with racism, and it’s strongly conveyed in this series.
This four-part limited Netflix series is a dramatized account of the Central Park Five. Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson were aged 14-16 in 1989 when they were arrested and convicted of the brutal rape of Central Park jogger Trisha Meili — a crime they didn’t commit.
The series, directed and co-written by DuVernay, starts off with a crowd of mostly African-American kids heading to the park at night, when suddenly the police begin arresting the kids for “wilding out.” Elsewhere in the park, a young white woman is found battered and barely alive.
When Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman), head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, hears that “a bunch of turds” were arrested elsewhere that same night, the D.A. and the NYPD begin to form a story of what must have happened. The police create a list of possible suspects in the park that night and go to Harlem to arrest them. They waste no time turning witnesses into suspects, defining them as “animals.” It’s a blur of events that takes place quite quickly, reflecting how disoriented the boys felt as the events were unraveling.
The first episode shows how the five teens are each kept for hours in a room with police, being questioned and then beaten into a confession. They are told that if they point fingers at the other kids, they’ll be free to leave.
The second episode follows the trial as their own confessions are used against them by Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga). When they do not accept the plea bargain because they won’t admit to something they didn’t do, they are all convicted and sentenced to serve between six and 13 years in prison. Korey, 16, is the only one sentenced as an adult.
The teens are stripped of their innocence that night, and it leaves you with rage at the infuriating injustice. The weight of this series sits on the shoulders of the multi-talented cast — the young actors who portray the teenage boys. They are well-cast and the moments when the camera zooms in on their faces haunts you throughout the series.
Ava’s powerful storytelling doesn’t just stop there. The final two episodes show how the events of that night forever haunts the Central Park Five. The audience follows them on their journey into adulthood, looking at the world through their lens as the emotional toll on their lives and their families comes to light.
The third episode further digs into the story of the now-adults Antron, Yusef, Raymond and Kevin, who are released from juvenile prison. Their struggles to fit in with society are explored with empathy as the ongoing injustices continue after their release. The “sex offender” label is forever stamped on them, haunting them every step of the way. Whether they are filling out a job application form or trying to reconnect with family, they are burdened with obstacles. Looking at the world through their eyes in the aftermath is particularly painful as they rejoin a society that still believes they are rapists.
The final episode is perhaps the hardest to watch. It follows Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome plays the teen and adult roles) as he serves 14 years in prison, moving between facilities where he’s brutally beaten by other inmates. He yearns for his mother to visit more often, and chooses solitary confinement as an instrument to survive against other inmates. The last half hour dives into the real criminal’s confession and the exoneration of the five men.
Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome is one of the stronger actors as he unravels the trauma Korey was facing. He’s given a role that he eschews with great gravity. He crawls under the skin of Korey and delivers a breakout performance.
Injustice is a central character in the series and mines outrage, while the cast makes sure that the story is received with heart. DuVernay weaves these four chapters together in a way that not only emotionally breaks you, but also showcases how society, the cops and the media had a hand in making them victims of wrongful conviction. The series demands empathy, while also begging to fix the broken American society.
DuVernay’s narrative and story structure is packed with underlying tones of injustice, lost innocence, trauma and racism. I’m glad that the series wasn’t dramatized in the usual clichés of triumph-over-adversity. While I would have liked more structure to the way the case and trial is played out and more specifics on the case, one would argue that DuVernay chose this method to focus on the victims and their plight, hoping we see them, hence the aptly titled When They See Us.
When They See Us is a brilliantly told, haunting story that boasts a stellar cast of actors who don’t go overboard, but with simplicity lend their voices to a story that needs to be seen, thereby the series tagline “What if all boys were created equal?” ~Marriska Fernandes
When They See Us in now playing on Netflix. If you would like to rate/write a review, click here.
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