When They See Us
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Rating: Five Stars
Imagine if someone erased seven years of your life at age 14: key milestones – teenage birthdays, first loves, graduations – all gone. This idea of loss is the underlying theme of When They See Us.
African-American director Ava DuVernay's crime drama series retells the notorious 1989 case of the "Central Park Five", in which five teenagers (four black, one Latino) were wrongly convicted of the rape of Trisha Meili, a 29-year-old white woman, who was assaulted while jogging in New York's Central Park. The five – Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Korey Wise – were aged between 14 and 16 at the time they were arrested and coerced into confessing to the crime. The subsequent trial was one of the most high-profile and highly-charged the city had ever seen.
DuVernay's dramatised series is not the first to look at the case. Sarah Burns, with her award-winning filmmaker father Ken Burns and husband David McMahon, explored the cost to the boys in their documentary The Central Park Five (2012) and the case was the focus of one of Joan Didion's most famous essays, New York: Sentimental Journeys.
Where When They See Us differs is in its humanisation of the boys' lives (through dramatic retelling) before their arrests. There are powerful portrayals of the four younger boys with two actors – one teenaged, one adult - playing each: Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares (Santana), Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk (Salaam), Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo (McCray), and Asante Blackk and Justin Cunningham (Richardson). Only Korey Wise is played by one actor - Jharrel Jerome, whose strong performance garnered an Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie. The strength of these characters reframes the story of the Central Park Five by emphasising what the boys and their families lost.
DuVernay chooses to highlight the other crime – the time stolen from five young men.
Of the five, the four younger served 6-7 years each in juvenile detention, while 16-year-old Wise was tried and sentenced as an adult, serving 13 years in adult prison. Then, in 2002, Matias Reyes, a man already serving a life sentence for other rapes and a murder, confessed to the crime. The confession came soon after meeting Wise in jail.
As a result, all their convictions were set aside and in 2003, the Five opened a civil lawsuit against the NYPD and New York City. For a decade, the city refused to settle but in 2014, under newly-elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, it agreed to a US$41 million settlement with "The Five", averaging US$1 million for each year of wrongful imprisonment that the men served.
There are many reasons to give When They See Us a five-star rating – the direction, the acting and the cinematography by Oscar-nominated Bradford Young are all outstanding.
More important, however, is the key insight the series offers into the experiences of people caught in prison systems despite having committed no crimes. African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites in the United States. This disproportionate trend makes When They See Us required viewing for those with the power and ability to sympathise and affect change: namely, white people.
This series follows on from DuVernay's previous works about racial inequality in the United States: the Best Picture Oscar-nominated Selma and Netflix's 13th. Racial inequality is a key theme in When They See Us; with the rising racial tensions in 1980s New York clearly evident in the media coverage of the case, which was unrelenting and largely focused on the boys' race.
The media brought the term "wilding", a description of what the boys had allegedly done in the park, into the national lexicon. Additionally, The Five were described as a Wolf Pack who "left [a woman] for dead" and articles rarely described the accusations as alleged. On top of that, there were full-page advertisements in four New York newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty for this case – taken out by Donald Trump. The US$85,000 ads referred to The Five as "roving bands of wild criminals". In the second episode, two of the boys' mothers watch Trump's TV appearance as they express their fervent hope his fame cycle would soon be over. The irony of knowing Trump's fame, power and impact has lasted far longer than 15 minutes, made the show even more painful to watch.
It's remiss to think that this rabid media coverage played out in a vacuum; it undoubtedly impacted the fairness of the boys' trial and the ability to find impartial jurors. The racial tensions and media coverage, a focal point in When They See Us, remind us to be critical of how the media treats suspects, especially people of colour. While this series springs from Meili's assault and rape, DuVernay chooses to highlight the other crime that occurred as a consequence of her assault and the police's determination to bring her attacker to justice – the time stolen from five young men now known as The Exonerated Five.
When They See Us is available for streaming on Netflix.