Home Theatre: When They See Us - The importance of being seen
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's When They See Us, which is currently streaming on Netflix
Ava DuVernay’s Netflix mini-series When They See Us made the news recently when it received 16 Emmy nominations, the second-highest for a Limited Series this year. That could be one reason to watch this series based on the true story of the 'Central Park Five' as the five teenagers were called, who were wrongfully prosecuted for the rape and assault of a jogger in the New York's Central Park on April 19, 1989. DuVernay being an acclaimed and award-winning director, known for two important films about Black lives — Selma and the documentary, 13th — could be another reason. Big names like Oprah Winfrey and Robert DeNiro being attached to the project as executive producers could be yet another reason. Or perhaps for the impeccable filmmaking and exquisite cinematography. But all that aside, the most important reason this series needs to be watched is, as the title says, so these men — now known as the 'Exonerated Five' — are finally seen. Seen for who they are and not who they were portrayed as for many, many years.
Make no mistake, When They See Us is no easy watch. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. I had to pause and step back several times because DuVernay pulls no punches. At one point, during the first episode of this four-episode series, I even wondered if I would be able to finish watching the whole thing. But I'm glad I stuck with it. This is a very important, and unfortunately, still extremely relevant story that needed to be told. In brief, this is the story of five black and Hispanic teenagers — Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), and Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez) — who were framed for the assault of a 28-year-old white woman by a criminal justice system that was eager to close the case in a hurry, by any means fair or foul ("It's no longer about justice; it's about politics," says prosecuting district attorney Elizabeth Lederer). All aided by a media eager to run with the narrative of a white female victim brutalised by 'unruly teenagers of colour'.
DuVernay shows us the story from the beginning — the day of the assault and the way sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein jumped on the chance to pin it on these boys, who happened to be at the park around the same time, with the help of NYPD officers who then threatened, tortured and coerced confessions from them — to the trials in 1990, followed by the repercussions for these five men and their families for over a decade, until they were finally exonerated in 2002. DuVernay also uses the benefit of hindsight to show us one part of this story that is of particular importance today — Donald Trump openly calling for the death penalty for these boys all those years ago, and going so far as to take out full-page ads in several newspapers to that effect. Sharonne Salaam, Yusef's mother, expresses her rage and anguish over this and says they need to "keep this bigot off the TV," to which her friend replies, "His 15 minutes almost up." A line that works as hopeful meta-commentary perhaps, but one that is also heavy with irony.
After watching this incredible series, I was reminded of a song by the hip hop group Dälek, It Just Is, whose chorus goes, "It ain't gon' be alright; We ain't gon' win; There ain't no happy ends; There just is." The entire song might well have been written for these five boys whose childhoods were stolen, these five men whose lives were turned upside down for no fault of their own. Towards the end of episode one, when the boys understand how they were all made to lie by the police in order to incriminate each other, Kevin asks, "Why they doing us like this?" To which Raymond replies, "What other way they ever do us?" It really drives home the desperation of people from minority and marginalised communities — not just in the US, but around the world — and not just 30 years ago, but even today.
When They See Us ends with the exoneration of these men and updates on what they have been up to since. It is a positive ending, but it's not cried up as a victory. Even at the very end, DuVernay — through the voice of Nomsa Brath, an activist — squarely points the finger at the criminal justice system (police and prosecutors alike) and the press, for not doing their job. She knows there's no cause to celebrate. Not yet.
The general tenor of the aforementioned Dälek song might not exactly be hopeful, but there is one line that stands out for me, particularly with reference to this series: "While I'm here I continue to speak in absence of fear." That's exactly what DuVernay has done here. And it's on us to listen. To listen and to see. And hopefully, to learn.