On Friday, Netflix premiered the four-part miniseries When They See Us, written and directed by Ava DuVernay (13th, Selma). The series focuses on the Central Park Five, the five African-American and Hispanic teens who were convicted (and exonerated thirteen years later) for the violent rape of a woman in Central Park on April 19th, 1989. Featuring a variety of star talent—Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Omar J. Dorsey, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Joshua Jackson, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, and William Sadler—and the producing power of Oprah Winfrey and Robert DeNiro, this emotional series is easily one of Netflix’s best.
The story of the Central Park Five is well known. Since the early days of the trial, the five teens were the subject of numerous books and articles. In the script written by DuVernay, along with Julian Breece (The First), Robin Swicord (The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button), Attica Locke (Empire), and Michael Starrbury (Legends Of Chamberlain Heights), this series delves deep into the lives of these young men as they suffer a great injustice. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, police brutality, coerced confessions, trial, convictions, and sentences, the story shows the pain each individual experienced as they matured behind bars.
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Behind the camera, DuVernay translates what’s on paper with visuals that are both beautiful and heartbreaking. With cinematographer Bradford Young, DuVernay paints a picture of isolation and fear for each young boy sitting in that precinct. That isolation continues as the teens grow to be adults, with angles that emphasize the empty space surrounding them while they attempt to live normal lives. From Korey Wise suffering physical abuse in prison to Raymond Santana unable to progress on the outside without the weight and judgement of society, the injustice of 1989 follows them every step of the way. Additionally, DuVernay doesn’t hold back in informing the viewer of the stance President Trump took against the boys back when he was just a real estate mogul. His actions of taking out a $85,000 full-page ad calling for the death penalty and his televised interviews are clearly presented throughout “Part Two.”
DuVernay doesn’t pull any punches in educating and/or reminding the viewer of the President’s position during that time, but his involvement is not her focus. Trump’s placement in this series timeline is merely an ingredient to the epidemic of racial prejudice that lead to five black and brown teenage boys being wrongly convicted of rape and assault. It puts the viewer in the shoes of these young boys as their innocence is ripped away and their lives nearly destroyed.
When They See Us is a difficult watch, but it is a must-watch nonetheless. It is DuVernay at her dramatic and emotional best. It is a reminder of what this nation’s justice system was once capable of and still could be capable of. It is a perfect presentation of innocence lost and the distortion of justice. It is also a reminder of how the evolution of acquiring and matching DNA has corrected wrongful convictions—in a country where it is estimated that 20% of those incarcerated are innocent.
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