The limited Netflix series about the Central Park Five, WHEN THEY SEE US, is harrowing to watch, and infuriating to contemplate. To be honest, I felt sick to my stomach and had to stop watching several times; I even considered not continuing the series. Truly, it was my guilt as a middle-class white woman that kept me from turning away to suit my own comfort. So, if the filmmaker Ava DuVernay wanted to make sure that this story reached those who should have been paying attention with a more human gaze all those years ago, it was successful at least where I am concerned. Further, as with so many other stories in recent years, seeing WHEN THEY SEE US will hopefully create an expectation of justice over reckless punishment and fairness over aimless revenge.
Director Ava DuVernay makes sure to keep the sympathetic gaze firmly on the victims even while showing them in contentious situations. When the camera watches the prosecution scheming and scrounging together a case and the police officers intimidating the accused, there is a cold desperation that emanates from the screen. And when one of the defense attorneys asks the Manhattan District Attorney to “Give them a fair fight,” the audience already knows it will be anything but fair. The sad fact is that WHEN THEY SEE US, along with other media treatments of the miscarriage of justice for these five accused, is the only fairness those involved can hope to receive. Justice, yes, but justice delayed and lives destroyed.
Even so, the director’s bias in favor of the boys is not so deep that it demonizes the District Attorney and detectives wholesale. At one point, the audience is teased when the DA questions the legitimacy of the case against the boys. But then reputations, politics, and the scrambled need to protect a white woman’s virtue by any manufactured means necessary destroys any hope of that. Just before the DA offers a plea deal, she tells Antwon’s lawyer, “It’s no longer about justice, counselor, it’s about politics. And politics is about survival. And there’s nothing fair about survival.” And that’s the crux of the film. The white power structure will sacrifice those with less power to maintain the appearance of safety and to solidify its own place.
The film isn’t just about the political and societal failings; it drills down to what we can all relate to in our own lives. The family tension entangled with love and fear is what makes this retelling unique. Granted, the dialogue is sometimes imagined, but the emotion behind decisions and the pain of a parent unable to protect their child is palpable. It’s frightening and daunting. DeVernay is able to layer the family tension with the courtroom scheming. One particularly sharp moment is when Korey, the only 16 year old of the younger teens, is pushed by the DA to affirm a statement that he has signed. Korey, agitated and frightened, admits that he cannot read the statement and that he didn’t write it. Again, this scene ought to have put doubt into the jury’s mind, but the DA appeals to the need to convict someone, anyone who is available. The juxtaposition of the counts being read with the boys’ moments of coercion with their responses is devastating. Again, lives destroyed.
What is different about this story and the way it’s told is that it doesn’t linger on the years in prison (although that is addressed to some extent later), it focuses on the support and love – or lack thereof – of the boys’ families. The issues the CP5 face once they leave prison are another hurdle. “Rapist” becomes a term thrown at them when others are frustrated. They navigate the limited options for jobs and housing. They watch dreams dissolve when they are told felons can’t hold professional licenses. It’s awful — and yet there are moments of finding joy and pleasure interspersed with the frustration and heartache. A girlfriend, reuniting with family and friends, finding comfort in religion.
The last episode focuses on Korey Wise’s experience. As the oldest of the boys, at 16, he was sent to prison with adults. The fear, the horrific beatings — one within an inch of his life — the isolation, and the deals he has to make to survive are portrayed in stark reality. Korey’s mental health, and the way he uses memories, regret mixed with hope, and his imagination to survive the relative, albeit traumatizing, safety of solitary confinement are highlighted. A caring guard, an apology from another inmate (who turns out to be the perpetrator of the Central Park rape), a refusal to play the “say you’re guilty” game of parole all keep Korey going. As with so many themes in this mini-series, small joys and maintaining hope are a big part of survival when the world is unfair.
The first episode, which focuses on society’s need to punish as an outlet for rage as opposed to achieve justice, is most pertinent to current events. The casual and overt racism of the officers, detectives, and prosecutors fuels the injustice even as inconsistencies present themselves. Rationalizing away discrepancies becomes a game of cat and mouse, but the “mice” are children with families and the usual teenage hopes and desires. Seeing the dramatic portrayal of the interrogations and the challenges the boys’ families faced helps make this iconic story of injustice relatable. Seeing ourselves and our loved ones in this story is an invaluable tool for reform and empathy.