Author’s Note: Though a crucial story to tell and hear, do know that When They See Us is triggering. Some things are better digested when read rather than viewed in a dramatization. Many people decided to stop watching after the first twenty minutes of episode 1. Some (like myself) had to take frequent breaks, pray, and discuss the material before pressing play again. It is indeed a traumatizing experience, but a story that must not be ignored.
Ava DuVernay’s Netflix special When They See Us is not an easy watch. This four-part series offers an insider’s view of the injustices suffered by five teenagers and their families surrounding the 1989 Central Park jogger rape case. The victims—Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), Kevin Richardson (Asante Black/Justin Cunningham), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris/Jovan Adepo), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez/Freddy Miyares), and Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse/Chris Chalk)—ranged from ages 14 to 16. Although the five were later exonerated of the crimes, to this point, their story has only been mistold, dictated by the media and the state. DuVernay, however, saw that the story needed to be told from their point of view.
The best cultural artifacts move us emotionally, physically, and spiritually. They stir up in us feelings we’ve suppressed or didn’t know we had and bid us to speak, advocate, and behave in ways we didn’t know we were capable of.“They are not kids. They raped this woman.” That was the premise set forth in 1989 by Manhattan’s top sex crime prosecutor Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) when Trisha Meili (Alexandra Templer) was discovered beaten, raped, and left for dead in Central Park. That was the story picked up by most media outlets. By then, the frustration of 3,412 unsolved rape cases in NYC had already settled in, and Fairstein desired more than anything to solve a case, even if it meant falsely accusing the innocent.
In the first episode we see Fairstein and her detectives and investigators concoct a story to their liking. All they needed were characters to fill the perpetrator roles. The night of the alleged crime, a large group of black and brown youth, which included the aforementioned five, were wilin’ out in Central Park. That phrase, “wilin’ out,” simply denotes hanging out, having fun, but it became a point of obsession for Fairstein. She takes the term in the most literal sense, mispronouncing the phrase (wilding out, versus wilin’), allowing herself to paint a dangerous picture of the boys they picked up from the park that night.
Fairstein and her cronies change timelines and question these children without parental consent. They coax confessions with threats and beatings. And they manipulate the boys and their parents to give false testimonies by promising release if they only cooperate. Adding to the fatuous behavior of the state, viewers learn that most of the five accused didn’t even know each other prior to the alleged assault. Antron’s dad, Bobby McCray (Michael Kenneth Williams) had himself experienced run-ins with the law. So he pushed Antron to say whatever interrogators wanted his son to say. “Tron, these police will mess us up,” he tells Antron. “When the police want what they want, they will do anything. They’ll lie on us. They’ll lock us up. They will kill us. I ain’t gonna let them kill my son.” This fear of the police ultimately leads to the boys lying on each other and providing false testimonies. From the beginning we see the state, though supposedly charged with protecting and serving, is more concerned with solving a case than finding out truth and doling out justice.
Episode 2 gives a bit more attention to Donald J. Trump. At the time, the outspoken Trump called for swift incrimination of the boys. DuVernay decided against casting Trump, but instead used real footage of him from interviews to show how destructive his words were and how they affected the families of the accused. To this end, DuVernay wisely spends little time on Trump, instead focusing on the victims of the state. “I decided I was telling the story of the men,” DuVernay told Hollywood Reporter.
But the few times we see Trump only adds to the frustration of biased stigmas the families were battling. Viewers are informed that the wealthy mogul spent $85,000 on ads in the newspapers to “Bring Back The Death Penalty.” The second time we see him, in another news clip, he claims that if he had to start over, he would “love to be a well-educated black,” because “they do have an actual advantage today.” These comments are strategically placed, because he hasn’t strayed from these beliefs even though the facts contradict his claims. In 1989, whites had 17 times the wealth of blacks in America. And even today, the wealth gap between African Americans and whites remains ridiculously staggered. But, as Trump’s comments highlight and themselves perpetrate, when you hear so many lies, they can begin to sound like truths unless otherwise exposed. But as it went for the families, neither they nor DuVernay believed Trump’s zeal “was for any real desire to seek justice for Trisha Meili, because if he did feel that way he would have sought it for Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford. It was an opportunity, and he’s an opportunist.”
DuVernay, best known for her works Selma, A Wrinkle in Time, and This Is the Life, uses When They See Us as an extended epilogue to another one of her highly acclaimed Netflix specials, 13th, a documentary highlighting the effects of the U.S. Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment. In it we learn that the Amendment did not in fact abolish slavery (as most would think). The law was merely redefined to enslave “criminals” rather than rehabilitating them to reenter society. If DuVernay’s 13th is the handbook, educating viewers on how the unjust for-profit, privatized system of slavery works, then When They See Us, specifically episode 3, brings it to life with booming quakes of dudgeon.
As a result of the state’s malfeasance, coupled with the exploitative and sensationalized media coverage of the case, the 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old boys were found guilty of the fabricated charges and sentenced to 5 to 15 years of jail time. They were offered plea deals that would’ve lessened their sentences in exchange for lesser jail time, but they resolved to maintain their innocence with a plea of not guilty.
The third episode of When They See Us shows the burden of life for the accused teenagers during and after prison. But it again widens the scope to include the strain on their families amidst the financial and time commitments required to maintain functional relationships while the boys are imprisoned. Yusef’s mom, Sharon (Aunjanue Ellis), has difficulty finding a job once potential employers find out who her son is. Raymond Jr.’s father, Raymond Sr. (John Leguizamo), is excoriated by his new wife for all the collect calls he accepts from his jailed son. Kevin’s family expresses the emotional strains of his imprisonment the most, but they also seem to have a better grasp of his situation of all the families because they express—rather than suppress—what they feel. When Kevin voices his guilt for putting his family through this situation, his mother encourages him to do away with those feelings. “All the guilt,” she tells him. “It’s lazy energy. It doesn’t change the past. And it doesn’t shape the future, and it’s a waste. And we got no time to waste. We gotta live.”
The transaction of collective grief the families endure is best summed up in the exchange between Antron McCray and his mother, Linda (Marsha Stephanie Blake): “It feel like everybody hate me, Ma,” Antron tells his mother. “But I love you enough to make up for everybody,” she reassures him. “All I do all day is love you. 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.”
Linda’s words solemnly echo into the future where we see time elapsed and a once-young Antron emerge from prison, a grown man. Speaking personally, only on watching this scene did the gravity and weight of time pull me down into my stomach and make me feel the sickness of grief all over my body. As I felt this unraveling of equanimity, my mind attempted to fathom how long Linda’s words must endure and remain true to help these boys survive. Then another swell of righteous anger rises up from my gut as I’m forced to accept all that these young men were robbed of: their innocence and childhood, their manhood and independence, their time—their freedom.
But lest we believe that their release from prison ended in an exhalation of “finally,” we’re soon struck with more despair to learn about the stigmas that will remain with them post-release. For they were not released out of some rectification of their situation; rather, four of the five boys (Kevin, Antron, Yusef, and Raymond) had simply completed their jail sentences early and were released with parole. They’re relegated to registering as sex offenders, which changes the dynamics of their lives and restricts the jobs they can have. What they are allowed to do is ridiculously limited in scope due to the amount of rules that could get them re-incarcerated for breaking just one, like working next to another convicted felon. This is no happily ever after.
Even the return home is eventually soured as we sense their confusion upon realizing that they won’t be picking up from where they left off as teens. The pieces of the puzzle they desperately desire to put back together are misshapen, discolored, and grossly disfigured from the portrait of possibilities once presented to them as children. They are not allowed to be teenagers again. Time passed them by and life continued, unapologetically skipping their adolescence. It’s enough to bring about another wave of infuriating exasperation.
Episode 4 tells the story of Korey Wise, which is the most emotionally compelling of the five accused boys—and too graphic to put into adequate enough words. I sobbed four times throughout this final episode. I’m convinced it’s one of the few proper responses for his injustice; that, and invoking curses along with him on the unjust system that put him there. Indignation rampantly spread through my soul as I wondered how and why God would allow the legally innocent be forsaken in this manner. The depiction of everything stripped from Wise, all that he offers to this world as an image bearer of God—his compassion, humor, friendship, loyalty, imagination—is difficult to stomach.
In the end, we learn who the actual rapist is. He confesses and implicates himself in the crime only out of a religiously motivated act of reconciliation. DNA evidence supports his claims and connects him as the sole perpetrator of the rape. Initially, exuberance for the five innocent—now men—overwhelms the spirit, and tears of joy begin to well at the news of their exoneration. However, this joy is soon followed by another sense of loss. We can’t help but think what could have been for these boys if the system worked as it was designed to.
Though the state exonerated the five and awarded them $41 million, it never has to acknowledge its own wrongdoing. The state failed Trisha Meili, but in the process, it also failed and made victims of Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana Jr. It failed their families and subsequently made them victims, too. And if we’re honest, it’s hard to watch them walk free—not because they are criminals, but because their justice was dishonorably delayed.Then another swell of righteous anger rises up from my gut as I’m forced to accept all that these young men were robbed of: their innocence and childhood, their manhood and independence, their time—their freedom.
Perhaps the reason When They See Us is so difficult to watch is because we all know, whether consciously or subconsciously, that this injustice of the state could repeat itself. We know that it has—plenty of times. The Central Park Exonerated Five incident is not relegated to a space. It is not stuck in time. It had happened before, it happened after, and it is continuing to happen. How many people have been unjustly accused only to later be exonerated based on false or misapplied evidence? How many people remain at the mercy of the state, a government that is not absolved from immorally biased prejudice, no matter how passionate it is for justice? The question looms: how many other innocents are out there? How many others have been falsely accused that we may not ever know about?
These are heavy questions and insights for a website covering pop culture, but it’s also a testament of the brilliance of writer/director Ava DuVernay. Her uncanny ability to use veiled stories and weave them into the fabric of film with a steady dose of relevant culture is a gift we’d do well to pay attention to. The best cultural artifacts move us emotionally, physically, and spiritually. They stir up in us feelings we’ve suppressed or didn’t know we had and bid us to speak, advocate, and behave in ways we didn’t know we were capable of. The best culture doesn’t blind us to reality, lost in stories of fiction or nonfiction. Both genres, if done correctly, open our eyes to the realities of our world. Sometimes the scene is beautiful. Oftentimes it’s horrendous.
When They See Us strategically unmasks the powers of darkness and provides a challenge to see the world as it is. But not only to see it, but to shape it with light by exposing the rulers, authorities, powers of darkness, and spiritual forces we often can’t see (Ephesians 6:12). When you see the fate of these boys, will you look away, steeping your life in apathy again? Or will you educate yourself: “Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are disposed … and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy” (Proverbs 31:8–9 HCSB)?