Written and directed by the great Ava DuVernay, When They See Us tells the story of the young Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Yusuf Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris) and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), five black and brown boys no older than sixteen-years old who were falsely accused of raping a female jogger in Central Park on April 19th, 1989. Criminally abused and coerced by police detectives led by Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman), and prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga), we see these boys and their families stripped of everything for nothing.
There’s less than 10 minutes of the boys who would soon be known as the Central Park Five freely living their lives. The cinematography offers a strong contrast before and after they are arrested; it has an ease to it before the quiet urgency kicks in and you can’t help but think that that’s what it must have felt like for the victims of a crooked system. The four walls of the interrogation room are shot out of focus, exposing the detectives as the racist and inhumane perpetrators who create a life-ending, false story out of thin air. These shots also magnify the innocent black and brown boys in an environment in which they shouldn’t belong and in which they will never have an inch of power. Each time the detective corrects the boys for “mistakes” they make while giving coerced statements, it’s difficult to decide whether you should scream in fury or cry in helplessness. Towards the end of the episode, after the boys have been charged and most have signed away their rights, we get a scene where all of the boys, except Korey, sitting in a juvenile holding cell. This is the first time they all meet, each taking their respective corners in the room. It is nothing short of heartbreaking to see each boy realize that they had just falsely sealed the horrific fate of three strangers without any intention of harm. Showing the boys suddenly learn the reality many young black people must come to terms with: fairness, a seemingly simple idea, is an abstract concept in the black reality.
The following episode contrasts the world these boys were living in through portraying the white public’s perception of black lives, which was further pushed by the press, with these poor boys’ once happy reality. As a key element to how the country saw these boys, the film thoughtfully holds the press accountable for their complicity in reinforcing the unbelievably false characterization of these black and brown boys. DuVernay also offers an authentic portrayal of Trump’s cultural relevance before his presidency. The episode brings our attention to Trump’s racist immorality as he bought $85,000 worth of newspaper ad space to call for the death of five boys, a fact that has always been known to those willing to take notice or care. While still keeping a tight focus on the five boys who were forever wounded by this tragedy, the first two episodes of the mini-series delicately showcase how the detectives and prosecutors involved were too distracted by black and brown boys being boys in a park to bring Patricia Meilli actual justice. Actors Rodriguez, Harris, and Herisse soulfully bring a twinkle of hope to their respective roles as they stand strong in the truth and seek what’s beyond fairness–what’s right and just–but quickly lose it as their reality settles in. The third episode also seamlessly portrays the dichotomy between the two trials of the five boys as Kevin and Korey, and their families, are never seen with a glimmer of hope.
As the episode begins with Kevin, Antron, Raymond, and Yusef in juvenile detention, we then see the further effects of this unjust ordeal when they are released from prison and return back to society–only to be rejected as adults. The city they called home as teenagers may have changed, but it still makes it known that they are still unwelcome as men. Antron, now played by Jovan Adeop, on top of trying to readjust to life after prison, is forced to face his sick father after he abandoned their family during the trial. DuVernay lovingly frames Adeop and William’s performances without judgement as they somehow come to terms with a son being let down by his father’s inability to protect him, and a father trying to find his son’s love again after severely letting him down. The episode further criticizes the system that’s in place, or lack thereof, for convicts after release through Raymond, played by Freddy Miyares, as he never finds proper footing back home, which leads to his dealing in drugs. With a chaotic home where he is bluntly unwelcome by his stepmother, the hopelessness that filled young Raymond’s eyes in the previous episodes unfortunately returns by the end of this addition in the mini-series. The third episode also excellently depicts how this tragedy forever changed the lives of the boys’ families, particularly with soulful performances from John Leguizamo and Aunjanue Ellis.
The fourth and final episode begins with young Korey and his wide, desperate eyes hauntingly transitioning into his current soul-crushing adulthood in prison—one which he begrudgingly accepts. During each hallucination (adult or young) Korey has in his extended stay in solitary for his safety, Jerome’s acting allows for the audience to see a young boy struggling to cope in the worst of circumstances while revealing his present desperation in trying to hold on to what he knows to be true as an adult. Though he, like the other boys, yearn to be in the real world again, DuVernay makes an important storytelling choice to include Korey’s late transgender sister Marci (Isis King) with such warmth, within the narrative to illustrate how the world outside of prison can be just as dangerous to black and brown people. After the truth of the case finally comes to light by way of a confession by the actual serial rapist, and further digging into other patterns and victims by district attorney Nancy Ryan (Famke Janssen), the series ends with Korey back on his Harlem streets, revisiting a happy moment in his youth. Despite all of the unnecessary hardships these five of the men face throughout the series, ending the narrative with Korey getting just a small piece of his childhood back brings hope into what their lives could be.
While the series can drag a bit towards the middle of each episode and rely too heavily on cliche dialogue, DuVernay’s ability to focus on who these boys were, and were forced to become, wears on your soul. Throughout the series, we are reminded that this was not only a tragedy because young boys had something so precious as childhood and innocence stolen, but also that this was a senseless event that did even greater, preventable injustice to the female victims before and after April 19th, 1989. Yet, as she does best, DuVernay critiques those who must be held responsible and uplifts those who were forgotten or unknown with such soul, audiences will long be changed by the five boys who lived in the truth, no matter the stakes.