Film & Television

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

The series follows the real-life events in chronological order. Part one focuses on the immediate aftermath of the crime and the framing of the boys. Part two covers the two trials. Part three follows the lives of the first few to be paroled, and part four is mostly about Wise and his longer incarceration as an adult. Although the eventual exoneration of all of the accused does provide the miniseries with a happy ending of sorts, the childhoods disrupted and lives destroyed can never be wholly mended.

DuVernay recently told The Daily Beast, “I consider them all friends — I’ve been in their homes, they’ve been in mine. Over the course of the four years, I’ve developed personal relationships with each of them that are separate and apart from them as a group.” But, she’s quick to add, “they’re broken people. Yes, they can get in on a panel and talk about their experience, but they’re not all completely well adjusted. There are different levels of that, based on the support that they have in their lives and based on the level of trauma that they’ve experienced, all of which are different . . . There’s great trauma there that $41 million from the city, split between the five, with no acknowledgment of what was done, doesn’t really fix.”

When They See Us is a remarkable piece of filmic storytelling. But it isn’t entertainment, per se. In fact, it’s often very difficult to watch. There are times when you wish it was fiction. What happened in the courtroom thirty years ago was such an egregious corruption of justice that it would be unacceptable to the viewers of any television show along the lines of Law and Order. Watching When They See Us, I found myself crying several times — for the terrified boys, for their lives in and after prison, for all their lost years. One would hope that a vengeance-driven, racial witch-hunt on such a grand scale couldn’t happen today. But there is no doubt that profiling, police brutality, and a judicial system that penalizes the poor and marginalized can still be found.

I encourage you to watch When They See Us. DuVernay’s gripping miniseries has allowed the Central Park Five (who now prefer the title “the Exonerated Five”) the chance to be seen and heard they were denied in 1989.

You won’t enjoy When They See Us, but you’ll appreciate it. In a way, every New Yorker who once believed that they were guilty (or anyone who followed the story from out of town), should feel a responsibility to see it. With original programming that is powerful, thought provoking, and immensely relevant, Netflix is redefining the old tagline “must-see TV.”

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