Originally premiering on Netflix in May 2019, When They See Us is a true life story recreated for the screen by Academy Award nominated director Ava DuVernay. It depicts the tragic and real proceedings of the 1989 Central Park Five case…
….and how five teenager boys of colour were falsely accused and convicted of a brutal rape they did not commit, and how it lead to them becoming The Exonerated 5. The miniseries is spanned over 4 episodes, which shows the intense legal investigations in which its practices were illegal, the highly publicised court cases and the brutality of prison life, particularly how it impacts upon their lives after being released from prison over a decade later.
Executively produced by Oprah Winfrey and Robert De Niro, the miniseries boasts a phenomenal cast composed of both acclaimed actors known on the screen and those in their debut performance[s] such as the incredible Asante Blackk in his first role and Emmy nominated turn as 14 year old Kevin Richardson. When They See Us also pays tribute to the families who never gave up to free their children from the unjust American criminal system, such as Niecy Nash’s fantastic dramatic turn as Delores Wise, If Beale Street Could Talk’s Aunjanue Ellis as strong-willed Sharonne Salaam and John Leguizamo makes the limited role of Raymond Santana Sr truly memorable and authentic.
As Korey Wise, actor Jharrel Jerome (best known for his previous role in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight) portrays the innocent but convicted 16 year old placed into Rikers Island where he begins a hellish journey from 1990 into 2002 where the real perpetrator eventually comes forward proving the innocence of all five men, thus earning Korey Wise his freedom and vindication after serving over 11 years in prison. Jerome truly gives a tour-de-force in the final episode as Wise, in which the actor is able to convey the nuances of a boy trapped in a living nightmare, to his painful incarceration as a young black man, stuck in an uncaring system that has abandoned him. Though he is trapped in solitary for his own protection, Wise finds glimmers of hope in the few conversations he has with his mother Delores (Nash), his former love Lisa (Duvernay alum Storm Reid cameos) and his trans sister Marci (Isis King) through dreams and recollections of memories.
The series take its time to show the lives of the families the cases impacted upon, in which Parts Two and Three portray the boys facing legal prosecution to a terrifying journey into the prison system and how as grown men they face an unfamiliar world in 2002 when they’re released from prison. Ava DuVernay executes the pace of the series perfectly to depict the horrendous racism the families faced by the white public and the white biased press, the corrupt and unjust American legal system still standing today, and the cruel treatment by the policing system often voiced in the form of attorney-turned-author Linda Fairstein (portrayed by Felicity Huffman) and the illegal interrogations by corrupt white cops against the five boys that took place. In one particular scene, father to Antron McCray, Bobby (Michael K. Williams on top form) pleads Antron to go along with what the white detectives want from him, as Bobby experienced the hardship of police brutality and incarceration already before he became his father, only wanting for his son to be set free. Bobby’s desperate actions to save his son fall throughs his hands, and his eventual regret of his actions to stand up to a policing system that targets black people is hard-to-watch and harrowing, but it is necessary viewing in order to show the harsh corruption of a legal system built on institutionalised racism.
What Ava DuVernay has achieved in her storytelling is truly remarkable and her direction is impeccable in the way she recreates the depictions of the five boys that were torn apart in the media and influenced their ill-fated conviction. In a 2019 interview for CBS This Morning the director discusses how she grew up with the news of the Jogger Case and the Central Park Five in her Lynwood childhood, that it always stuck with her because she was the same age as the 5 falsely imprisoned, and how a tweet from one of the Exonerated, Raymond Santana Jr, inspired the beginning of production after the success of her previous film Selma. DuVernay also recreates the coverage of the adverts funded by current President Donald Trump, who condemned the five boys accused during the 1989 court cases in which he demanded the return of the death penalty. His response to the documentary The Central Park Five by Ken Burns that also discussed the Exonerated 5, was that it was “one sided garbage” and Trump has never once officially apologised to them, nor has the State of New York.
When They See Us provides a timely lesson that the justice system in America is need of reform and that white supremacy incriminated five innocent lives and their families also paid the price, DuVernay has stated in the same CBS interview that a case like this does and can still happen to people of colour. In the climate of continued abuses of power against black people be it police, law or media, the words that should be on the lips of everyone right now is, black lives matter.