‘When They See Us’ Is a Horror Film for People of Color


”When They See Us” is more than a series about a miscarriage of justice; it is an indictment of a racist system. The victims of that system are finally being seen.

By now, the world is familiar with the story of the Central Park Five, the five male teenagers (four black teenagers and one Latino) who were unjustly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. African American director Ava DuVernay recounts their story in the four-part dramatic mini-series “When They See Us.” Shortly after its debut on Netflix, the film began to be described on social media as “a real-life horror film for black America,” and justifiably so. There is a reason why therapists were on standby during the filming of the show.

The series starts off on an upbeat note, portraying the daily life of the five young innocent boys and their typical teenage preoccupations. “Public Enemy’s Fight the Power” – a song that captures the spirit of the late 1980s – plays in the background as a large group made up of primarily young black men hang out in Central Park. After six minutes, the song abruptly makes way for a more ominous score. Kris Bowers, the composer, considered that to be suitable for this scene.

Six minutes. That is how long DuVernay spends on the innocent youth of Antron (15 years old), Kevin (14 years old), Korey (16 years old), Raymond (14 years old) and Yusef (15 years old). It is both enough and too little – enough, because it should not be necessary in order to elicit the viewer’s empathy, and too little, because the viewer still wants to know who the boys were.

Just six minutes, until the fateful events begin to unfold. After that, the question is no longer whether you will cry, but when. The first episode shows how investigators went about selecting the five. We see how they coach the boys: “Say that the other kid did such and such, and then you can go home.” The boys are interrogated without their parents present, and, in their desperation, they lie about the role played by the other suspects. When they meet each other for the first time after being locked up in the same cell, one boy says to another, “I lied on you, man. I’m sorry.”

Powerful Acting

The second episode follows the trial and the verdict. The taped confessions turn out to be inconsistent – it is clear that the boys did not commit the crime. Yet we already know that they will be convicted. At the time, Donald Trump took out ads in several major newspapers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, especially for these boys.

The third episode starts off strong, but falters a bit toward the end under the weight of the numerous stories that must be told. The outstanding young actors make way for incredibly compelling adult actors. It is clear that there is much to tell about their transition back to daily life after being released on parole, not only with respect to the men themselves, but also their families, public opinion and how difficult it is to find their place in a society that does not wish to afford them one.

Director DuVernay chose that storyline in order to be able to place the emphasis in the final episode on Korey – the boy who was not originally arrested by the police, but who happened to be with Yusef when he was taken into custody and chose to accompany his younger friend so that he wouldn’t be left alone. Korey, who waited on Yusef for hours until the police decided to use him to make their flimsy story add up as best they could. Korey, who was physically beaten by police until he became the only one of the five suspects to confess on camera to raping Trisha Meili. Korey, who, because he was 16 years old, was the only one to be sent to an adult prison, and who remained in prison for the longest period of time. He was viciously assaulted there and carried out the majority of his sentence in solitary confinement, where he spent years hallucinating about his stolen youth, about his murdered sister, a transgender woman, and about their mother. This heartbreaking story is told in the most beautiful and poignant episode, with powerful acting from Jharrel Jerome.

Bittersweet Exoneration

The young men are ultimately exonerated as adults, but it feels bittersweet. The fact that they are eventually released does not at all diminish the gravity of this series and their true life story.

“When They See Us” is a dramatization of an already horrific story. Apart from a few unnecessary flashbacks, DuVernay has done an excellent job. You may question whether the antagonists, such as the investigators and the prosecutor, too often seem like one-dimensional villains. But the film is not about them; the film is about what was done to these boys. Felicity Huffman is extremely convincing in the role of Linda Fairstein, the public prosecutor who orchestrates everything in the series; a role that is now difficult to separate from Huffman’s own recent scandal. Last month she pleaded guilty to paying $15,000 in a fraudulent scheme to get her daughter into a top-ranked university.

Indictment of a System

In a country plagued by police violence, where black and Latino men are more likely to serve jail time than their white counterparts facing similar charges, and where Trump commands the biggest platform, “When They See Us” is urgently needed. The series does not simply present the story of a single case; DuVernay offers an indictment of the entire justice system. Those who already lacked any faith in the American justice system will have even less faith after watching, and those who already feared that system will be even more afraid. But those very real fears, with which many people of color are confronted, are now being affirmed and laid bare. The expression of these well-founded anxieties is now resonating as well, as illustrated by the boycott of the real Linda Fairstein’s books, as well as the fact that Elizabeth Lederer, the chief prosecutor in the case, felt obliged to resign from her position at Columbia Law School last week.

“When They See Us” is a horror series for people of color that deals with far more than the infamous and sensationalized case of the Central Park Five. It is about real people – about the destroyed, and after many years, reclaimed, lives of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. These five men of color now stand center stage – their faces are now being shown. They are finally being seen.

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About James Armel Smith 25 Articles
James is a professional Dutch to English translator based in Chicago, IL. He holds a BA in Sociology/Anthropology from Denison University, an MSc in Sociology from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) , and an MA in Historical Sociology from Binghamton University - SUNY, as well as certificates in International Relations from UvA and Paleography & Reading 17th Century Dutch Texts from Columbia University/UvA. His academic research has focused on male prostitution in Amsterdam, increasing access to HIV/AIDS medications globally, and the history of science in the Netherlands in the 17th-18th centuries. James specializes in academic translations in the social sciences and the humanities, and is the founder of the Translation Salon (www.translationsalon.com). His professional tagline reflects his mission of bringing Dutch ideas to global thinkers, and his work for Watching America helps further contribute to this personal and professional passion.

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