*Content warning: Due to the nature of this show, themes of sexual violence and physical violence may be discussed in this article.*
In her third collaboration with cinematographer Bradford Young, Ava DuVernay gives us When They See Us, the story of the infamous Central Park jogger case of 1989 where five teenage boys were wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of Trisha Meili. The five boys, were convicted without any evidence apart from coerced (and contradicting) confessions. When They See Us is a story of injustice that spans 25 years from the date of the incident and their arrest to the eventual exoneration and settlement given to the five men. When They See Us is the story of Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana Jr.
Although the Central Park jogger case has been covered before, DuVernay’s series stands apart from previous adaptations of the case such as Ken Burns’ documentary The Central Park Five, because it aims not only to tell the story of the case but to tell the story of the five boys as well. DuVernay can afford to do so with When They See Us due to the nature of it being a four episode mini-series with episodes ranging in lengths from just over an hour to closer to an hour and a half, each versus the limited timeframe of a two hour runtime for a film. That however doesn’t mean that Burn’s documentary is inferior to When They See Us; it most probably provided a stepping stone for DuVernay’s series, they are just different. DuVernay simply has more time and artistic liberty in telling the story which a documentary would not have available.
With that being said, this series is so important. This case is so important. The boys, regularly referred to as the Central Park Five, were people. Real people. And too often, despite their exoneration, they are grouped into the narrative surrounding the jogger case. A very important thing that DuVernay does with this series is that she makes us know who they are. They aren’t just the Central Park Five. They are Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana Jr. She humanizes them. She tells us not just their story as a whole, but as individuals. In the series, they are rarely referenced as the Central Park Five and that detail in itself is important. They are not grouped together as a collective to be interchangeable. Duvernay portrays them as the kids that they are, aged just 14-16 years old at the time of their arrest. They are individuals. We hear their stories. We meet their family. We are forced to create a connection.
DuVernay opens up the ugly truth of the way this case was influenced by the preconceived notions society has against people of colour, the very same preconceptions that are still present today. Issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and a flawed justice system only scratch the surface of what this film dives into. This series is heart-wrenching. The first episode focuses on the night of the attack and the arrests of the boys. From the very first episode, When They See Us doesn’t hold back and presents the scenes with such detailed diligence. One section of the first episode in particular that uses such subtle but effective detail is the interrogation scenes. These scenes show us each of the boys being interrogated (read: manipulated and abused) where the boys are framed in soft light, giving us a strong focus on the boy in question as the world around them quite literally fades away.
Imagery like this is present throughout the series and adds so much and speaks to the brilliance of DuVernay and the crew behind the show. One scene in particular that speaks volumes is near the end of the series where a detective involved is questioned about the discrepancies in the case. To this, the detective stands up and says “Justice was fucking served” with the American flag displayed behind him just slightly out of focus.
The most notable and perhaps the most impactful way in which DuVernay comments on the injustice of these issues is through spotlighting Donald Trump, the very same man who is currently the President of the United States. For those who do not have a background knowledge of the case and Trump’s relevance in it let me fill you in: Donald Trump bought $85, 000 worth of advertisements in New York papers calling for the execution of the boys before their trial even happened. DuVernay uses real footage of Trump, giving us a raw, living embodiment of the ignorance and racism embedded in America. During one scene, the characters react to what is being said on TV. The dialogue goes as such:
“They need to get that bigot off TV…”
“It’s alright his 15 minutes are almost up.”
The power that scene holds is phenomenal and this scene shows us exactly why this case is relevant to this day.
There are plenty more scenes just like this scattered throughout the series if you pay close enough attention. When They See Us not only blatantly speaks to the issues of racism and a corrupt justice system but is also dripping with astounding imagery to add onto it. If these scenes don’t attest to the hard work put into this series production, I don’t know what will.
I want to briefly talk about the cast for this series. This cast is amazing. You can tell that each and every one of them went into this and gave it their all. I’d like to focus on a few actors in particular. For each member of the core five, there were two actors: a young version and an adult version with the exception of Korey Wise. All of these actors took on these roles and did them justice however I’d like to highlight the performances of two in particular. First, I’d like to talk about Asante Blackk who plays Young Kevin Richardson. Kevin Richardson being the youngest of the five boys at fourteen years old has an innate innocence and vulnerability surrounding himself and Asante Blackk captures that perfectly. His performance brought me to tears.
I’d also like to talk about Jharrel Jerome with his performance of Korey Wise. Jerome is the only one of the five to play his character into adulthood. Being sixteen at the time of his arrest, Wise was placed in an adult prison unlike the other members. This sets Wise’s story apart from the rest – in fact, the series final episode takes a majority of its time to focus on just Korey’s story – and Jahrrel Jerome takes this role and shows us how Korey changes from when we first meet him through his time in prison with seamless transition. Having the ability to give us both versions of Korey like that takes great skill.
Playing the roles that these boys did, not just the ones I’ve highlighted but all nine actors of the core five, deserve recognition because this was no easy task. In fact, all of the cast does. As Niecy Nash, who plays Delores Wise (Korey’s mom), told The Hollywood Reporter, crisis counsellors were available for the cast after filming each day because of how heavy the material was and how it could affect those involved. So to the cast, I see your hard work and I admire it.
One critique I do have however is in the length of the series itself. Originally, the series was planned to consist of five episodes which ended up being cut down to four. While I do think this series is fantastic, I believe that they could have benefited from an extra episode. By having a fifth episode, the series could have possibly spent more time on the reinvestigation and exoneration of the five men. As it is now, while adequate enough, it does feel a tad rushed by using the classic technique of plopping in a block of text on the screen to fill us in on information as is usually done with most film and tv series based off of real events. I believe that the reinvestigation and exoneration of Richardson, McCray, Salaam, Wise, and Santana deserved just as much attention as the rest.
There is no better time than now for When They See Us to come out. This story reminds us that the battle for equality and justice is not over. The world is not a perfect place and we are continually being reminded of that. Whether that’s through songs such as “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, or books like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, or series like When They See Us that remind us that the issues of the past aren’t just in the past. They’re here and they’re in the present and we need to do something about it. So on May 31st, do yourself a favour and take the time to watch When They See Us. You won’t regret it.
Rating – 9/10
When They See Us premieres on Netflix globally on May 31, 2019.