In the first episode of When They See Us, the audience is presented with criminals assembled in a New York holding cell, but these criminals look different. They're not in prison uniforms. They're teenagers wearing high-tops, fall jackets, hoodies, and have faces—mostly Black, that are unmistakably afraid. And on the other side of the enclosed cage are gathered the mostly white New York law enforcement who look at these boys and see only guilt.
The four-part Netflix series When They See Us, is the historical account of five young teens (one Latino, four Black) who were falsely accused and convicted of the brutal sexual assault of a woman jogging through Central Park in 1989. Over the course of the series, the audience watches the boys, who are all between 14 and 16, get coerced into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. We watch them grow into men, incarcerated, who are paying the price for someone else’s wrongdoing. The audience also sees the parents, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and briefly the female victim herself, Trisha Meili deal, grieve and survive. While other dramas of this kind often focus on victims and investigators, the focus here is on the accused. It’s a haunting story that shares a space with the innumerable podcasts, films and limited-run docuseries that try to rationalize and memorialize true crime incidents of years past. For the few major crimes over the years that challenged our everyday understandings of morality and justice, there’s been crime show that's attempted to answer our many questions.
For example, several docu-series like The Jinx, and Wild, Wild Country followed a true crime formula—well-reported and visually stimulating, with a faint sense of character and theme. In 2016, it was the dramatized biopic approach in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which not only delved into the crime itself, but into the reasons it captured the public’s imagination in the first place. And in 2012, this very case was given the investigative treatment through a long-form documentary by Ken and Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five, which probed and exposed the inequalities of the criminal justice system. All of these approaches can make for gripping and important television, but they aren’t as personalized as what Ava DuVernay gives us in When They See Us.
If you’re Black in North America, the events playing out on screen are unfortunately familiar. We’ve seen Black and dark bodies abused by the law consistently. We’ve been told the same campfire stories of Black lives imprisoned over coerced confessions. But in the case of When They See Us, DuVernay has given us a story that runs counter to this practice, and presents these boys as more than just the sum of their trial. When They See Us isn’t a beautification of history like Green Book, rather, it’s a heartrending portrait of the five who survived the case that sought so hard to define them, and went on to live beyond it. And frankly, it’s pretty damn refreshing.
To know anything about the “Central Park Five”, is to know about what it means to sensationalize a crime: Young Black and Hispanic boys accused of assaulting and raping a white woman in New York’s Central Park in 1989, dubbed the “wolf pack” by the press for reader titillation, and forced to undergo two days of punishing questions that lead to the coerced signing of conflicting confessions. What came next was five teenagers reduced to a series of ugly terms that the media, and Donald Trump himself promulgated—animals, rapists, hoodlums, predators. They were sentenced to between five and 15 years in prison and juvenile detention centers, and their names—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise— were erased and replaced by a label that memorialized the crime they never committed and stripped them of their individual identities.
So much of on-screen historic Black injustice is presented through the lens of the crime itself ( A Time to Kill, Mississippi Burning, etc), thereby offering up Black and brown bodies as props for a history lesson. It’s all too easy for a biopic or series of this nature to obsess over lurid details, making the crime and punishment more of a focus than the people affected by it. The result is that we often lose sight of the humanity of those we should empathize with.
But DuVernay does not let this happen. She turns these wronged individuals into living and breathing characters whose interiority and identity becomes the story. These men had hopes, dreams, and thoughts that were greater than “The Central Park Five.” DuVernay makes it her duty to uncover them for the audience that was never allowed to see past their crime.
In a single wide-shot for example, Bobby McCray the father of a grown Antron McCray, attempts to talk with his son and apologize just years after he has asked his son to lie to obtain an early release. His conversation is answered with silence. The hard stares they exchange convey clearly that the anger Antron holds isn’t just for the institution that imprisoned him, but for the father who couldn’t save him. Another anguish-filled sequence shows Raymond Santana Sr staring down at a job application in a cheap diner. A parole officer sits at his side and explains the infinite ways in which he may never get a job as a felon. Santana Sr wants to do good, but the close-up shot of his face shows that he understands how the system will fail him again, even on the outside. Most poignantly, DuVernay’s portrayal of Korey Wise’s 12-year term, mostly spent in solitary confinement, shows a human life in less-than-humane circumstances. He’s soft spoken, reserved, loves Chia Pets, and has a hard time reading. He was beautifully innocent, alone and painfully naive which makes the fate that befell him even more tragic.
When They See Us will be remembered as a series that chose to break away from our obsession with the crime of the Central Park Case. Afterall, it’s the old white fear of the Black rapist archetype that partially condemned these boys in the first place. DuVernay shows us that Yusef, Raymond, Antron, Korey, and Kevin were not animals or merely fodder for a tabloid crime story, but rather human beings with the merit to be seen as physically and emotionally separate from the crime they were accused of committing.
“I wanted to rename it [_When They See Us_] to re-prioritize the men, and to prioritize their humanity, and not this political moniker that was given to them or this press phrase that has been thrown out,” DuVernay said recently at a conference at Harvard.
In that sense, the hope is that audiences will no longer refer or group them as Central Park Five. They were so much more than that.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter