When They See Us is a four part Netflix series made in 2019 and directed by Ava DuVernay. It is based on the events of the 1989 Central Park jogger case. This case involved the violent assault of a woman in Central Park, New York City. When They See Us follows the lives of the five young boys who were falsely accused of charges relating to the assault. They were all young males of color: Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana.
The series portrays the coercion of their statements by the police, their trials, their convictions, and their time spent in prison. It also details the hardships they face after leaving prison as a convicted felon. Finally, you learn of their ultimate exoneration when the real perpetrator of the crime eventually confesses.
When They See Us was created as a crime miniseries, but it is also extremely educational.
The story of the Central Park Five is a true story. As the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus review reads, “Ava DuVernay pulls no punches in When They See Us, laying out the harrowing events endured by the Central Park Five while adding a necessary layer of humanity to their story that challenges viewers to reconsider what it means to find justice in America.” Ava DuVernay also directed the highly acclaimed documentary 13th (see my review of 13th here).
When They See Us provides an incriminating depiction of Linda Fairstein, the original New York prosecutor of the case, as well as the NYPD and others involved in the prosecution. The series shows how the police used controversial interrogation techniques to coerce false statements out of the five boys. It also sheds light on how the attorneys involved in prosecuting the case twisted the available evidence and withheld information in order to secure a conviction. They knew full well that they did not have sufficient proof that they accused boys committed the assault.
In addition to being educational, When They See Us is infuriating and heartbreaking.
The exoneration of the Central Park Five in 2002 made nation-wide news. Therefore, the series assumes that the audience will know the history of the case. You will watch the trials and wrongful convictions of the boys while all the while knowing they are innocent. To see these five young boys—full of life and with their whole futures ahead of them—be sent to prison for crimes they did not commit, is simply horrifying. The wonderful acting also allows you to connect with the characters and see their humanity. This is often hard to do when just reading about the case or hearing about it on the news.
Not only will you learn about the injustices committed by our criminal justice system, but you will also become more educated about the prison system. When They See Us follows the experience of the five boys in prison, especially Korey Wise. The system tried Wise as an adult even though he was only 16 at the time of his trial. He served his time in adult prison, including at Rikers Island, and did not receive parole like the others. Richardson, McCray, Salaam, and Santana each spent about 7 years in juvenile prison before being released on parole. Wise, on the other hand, remained incarcerated until the exoneration. He spent 13 years in the brutal adult prison system.
When They See Us is a must-watch.
It is perfect if you are trying to further your education surrounding race in America because of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. This series will give you an insight into the many injustices present in our systems. Unfortunately, the story of the Central Park Five is not uncommon; our criminal justice system often wrongfully convicts innocent people of color, and most never receive exonerations. It is important that we all continue to learn about these inexcusable abuses of power, so that we can begin to hold our system accountable and create change.