TL;DR – This is a series that I think is important for everyone to see because what we do has consequences and those consequences can be ruined lives.
Score – 5 out of 5 stars
When I loaded up this limited series, I kind of had an idea of what to expect. I had heard about the Central Park Five before and I thought I had a rough framework as to what happened and of course, having the blowhard-in-chief double down on it helped bring it all back into focus. However, while I understood what happened, it was an intellectual knowledge and not an emotional one. While I walked in here with what I thought was understanding, I now know I had no idea, none what so ever.
So to set the scene, one evening in April in New York City a group of young people of mostly African-American decent came together to have a bit of a raucous in Central Park. Soon the police arrived and brought a bunch of them in disturbing the peace after roughing more than a few of them in the process. However, later that night in the north section of the park woman was found clinging to life after being raped and assaulted. It is at this point that detective Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) draws the connection between the two incidents. Soon Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome) are dragged in front of the police, with no adults present. Soon the police would have their confessions, for assault and rape, confessions that looked dubious even under the most cursory inspection.
is hard to know just where to start exploring this powerful work by Ava
DuVernay and the many talented professionals that brought this story to the
screen. This must have been an incredibly difficult show to shoot because of
the emotions needed to hit those moments. Given how much of the series rests on
them, I am in awe of the young actors who portrayed the Central Park Five. They
have to go through so much, from pain to loss, to grief. Each emotional moment
hits you in the gut, even when you know what is coming, especially because you
know what is coming. I don’t know how you could not watch this and not have a powerful
emotional reaction to what you are seeing.
For me, I think what hit me the hardest was that all of this is not just some look at the past, this is something that happened within my lifetime. I know those fashions, I know those computers, and I knew those big news stories. Even knowing what happened, and also knowing what is still happening, it is still hard to watch the abject injustice on display here. One of the main takeaways of the film is just how many people were complicit in the injustice. There was, of course, the original police detectives who at the very best ignored procedure and applied heavy tactics to get them to confess, but I personally do not think they deserve an ‘at best.’ There is the prosecutor that clearly knew things didn’t add up and still went ahead with it anyway. Then there were the media, who latched onto the story and at no time bothered to do the due diligence to test the police’s narrative. Indeed in many cases, they inflamed the situation by using words like referring to them as a ‘pack.’ Indeed, throughout the film, there is this consistent use of words that describe the five as less than human and of course that was the goal.
are these moments throughout the series that hit you hard, like when the police
used Anton’s own father Bobby (Michael K. Williams) to coerce him after using
threats. Or when Anton thanks his lawyer (Joshua Jackson) thanking him for
doing his best because he knows what is about to come. Also in the fourth
episode, there is the moment Korey gets some bad news and well it is difficult
to write about it without being overwhelmed with tears again. I am sure part of
it was just what I am going through at the moment, but that simple human
kindness after years of abuse wrenched something inside me I didn’t know was loose.
This is all coming from a white boy from Australia, I can’t even begin to imagine
what it would be like watching this if you are African-American and know that
nothing in here is any great surprise.
When we get to the heart of When They See Us what we see is the impacts of systemic and institutionalised racism. The prosecutor who has the press hounding them and the case is about to be taken away to a different department, who goes “well let’s make the facts fit the suspects and not the other way around”. The police who go “well you are a person of colour, so let’s use our position of power to coerce or belittle you”. This abuse of power becomes even more profound once the boys are incarcerated and have their humanity ripped from them. This is a case study in the harm that all of this causes. There were the lives of the Central Park Five who were completely destroyed, their families who had their worlds torn asunder, there was the victim who the police let down by not finding her attacker, and the future victims of the rapist that escaped judgement.
In the end, do we recommend When They See Us? Absolutely. This is a series that I think everyone should watch so they can see that words have power and how we use them can cause great harm. So they can see the structures that exist that help some folk and discriminate against other folks. So they can see the harm caused when you have a leader of a country tell the world that they should have been executed for a crime they did not commit. It will not be an easy watch, but life is not easy.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow
Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV,
he’ll be talking about International Relations,
or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of When They See Us
Directed by – Ava DuVernay
Written by – Ava DuVernay, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, Yusuf Hassan & Michael Starrbury
Created by – Ava DuVernay
Production/Distribution Companies – Participant Media, Harpo Films, Tribeca Productions & Netflix.
Starring – Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Jharrel Jerome, Marquis Rodriguez, Justin Cunningham, Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Kylie Bunbury, Aunjanue Ellis, Vera Farmiga, Felicity Huffman, John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams, Len Cariou, Omar Dorsey, Suzzanne Douglas, Chikwudi Iwuji, Famke Janssen, Joshua Jackson, Christopher Jackson, Isis King, Logan Marshall-Green, Reece Noi, Adepero Oduye, Gary Perez, Dascha Polanco, Aurora Perrineau, Storm Reid, William Sadler, Alexandra Templer & Blair Underwood