Film & Television

Ava DuVernay’s powerful new Netflix mini-series ‘When They See Us’

According to the Simple English version of Wikipedia, Netflix is “an entertainment services provider.” Meanwhile, according to Merriam-Webster, the definition of entertainment is “amusement or diversion provided by performers,” with two examples given: “a public performance,” and “a usually light, comic novel.”

There is nothing amusing, light, or comic about Ava DuVernay’s powerful new Netflix mini-series When They See Us. Absolutely nothing.

When They See Us is so dark, so raw, and, tragically, so true, that it is at times almost impossible to watch. Running nearly five hours in four episodes, it’s available for bingeing, as are all Netflix series. But, unlike some of the streaming network’s lighter fare (The Crown, Grace and Frankie, Dead to Me, Santa Clarita Diet) watching it in one sitting may prove to be too much to handle. You may want to give yourself a break between the installments.

When They See Us tells the story of the so-called “Central Park Five,” the teenagers who were convicted in 1989’s infamous assault and rape of twenty-eight-year-old, white investment banker Trisha Meili. Brutally attacked and left for dead, Meili was discovered in the early hours of the following morning. She was in a coma for twelve days, and awoke with brain damage and no memory of the attack.

There were thirty or so black and Hispanic youths in the park that night and there were several other less serious incidents. The local police precinct, under the supervision of Linda Fairstein, director of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, was under enormous pressure to solve the case and make arrests as quickly as possible. The crimes had created a media frenzy forcing New Yorkers to envision violent “wolf packs” who roamed the park “wilding.” Harlem boys were rounded up for interrogation, and eventually the detectives focused on five of them: Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise, ranging in age from 14 to 16.

The boys were coerced, through a combination of physical abuse, sleep and food deprivation, and promises that if they said what they were told to say they would be allowed to go home. The five minors (the 16-year old was considered an adult in this situation) were questioned without the presence of their parents. Only two of the boys even knew each other; and one of these was only at the station because his friend who had been apprehended was frightened to be there alone.

Although there was relief that the attackers had been caught, the public outcry continued. The media portrayed the boys as uncontrollable, vicious animals. Donald Trump took out full-page ads in New York newspapers demanding that the state resurrect the death penalty. And Pat Buchanan suggested that if “the eldest of that wolf pack were tried, convicted and hanged in Central Park, by June 1st, and the 13- and 14-year-olds were stripped, horsewhipped, and sent to prison, the park might soon be safe again for women.”

Despite error-riddled, contradicting confessions and the absence of any physical evidence, the boys were found guilty and served between 6 and 13 years. In 2002, a serial rapist and murderer, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime and said that he had acted alone. DNA evidence from the scene confirmed his guilt and the Central Park Five were exonerated. In 2014, the men were awarded $40 million (each receiving $1 million per year they were incarcerated). However, New York did not admit to any wrongdoing.

DuVernay, acclaimed director of 2014’s Selma, became interested in the project after she received a tweet from Santana. Already intrigued by the 2012 Ken and Sarah Burns documentary, she was surprised to learn that no one had optioned the life stories of the five men. Over the next few years, she worked closely with them (and also reached out to Meili, who declined to participate, and to Fairstein, who would agree only if she had script approval; that was not acceptable to DuVernay).

The Netflix mini-series is a dramatization, so in addition to uncovering the facts (facts that both the NYPD and the media had obscured at the time), DuVernay had to find a tremendous group of actors, including double casting for four of the Five. The accused boys are played by Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, and Marquis Rodriguez. Their adult counterparts are played by Justin Cunningham, Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, and Freddy Miyares. Jharrel Jerome plays Wise at both ages. These actors offer courageous performances, maintaining dignity and honor under the worst of circumstances. Vera Farmiga delivers a multilayered Elizabeth Lederer (the prosecutor for the State of New York), while Felicity Huffman is almost too villainous as Fairstein. (The real Fairstein, now retired and a successful crime writer, has cried “foul” and claims that When They See Us is based on lies.)

Another group of compelling real-life characters are the mothers of the accused boys. Niecy Nash as Delores Wise and Marsha Stephanie Blake as Linda McCray, as well as Kylie Bunbury as Richardson’s big sister Angie, are particularly moving.

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