'When They See Us' Is a Solemn Recognition of Things Lost

BY SARAH JOHN

When They See Us, directed by Ava DuVernay (13th), is based on the true story of Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome); Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez, Freddy Miyares); Antron McCray (Caleel Harris, Jovan Adepo); Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse, Chris Chalk) and Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk, Justin Cunningham)  — the five innocent boys who were wrongfully imprisoned for the 1989 beating and rape of Trisha Meili,  commonly referred to as the “Central Park jogger case.” The series focuses on the corruption and controversy that surrounded the case in the ‘90s and continues all the way up to the real rapist’s confession in 2002, depicting the instances of lying, police brutality, and unfair media coverage of the boys along the way.

PHOTO:  Netflix

PHOTO: Netflix

Although only out for a matter of weeks, When They See Us has had an immense impact. Since its Netflix premiere on May 21st, it has inspired massive backlash against the famous prosecutor of the case Linda Fairstein, catapulted the five young leads of the show into fame, and resonated with audiences across America. However, the most relevant consequence of this series is — as its title suggests — the humanity it gives back to these five individuals, and to all people who have ever unfairly lost their childhood to the American criminal justice system.

People forget that the first thing racism steals from people of color is their innocence. When They See Us displays this truth by portraying the agony parents go through as someone discriminates against their child, and the helplessness those children face as they watch their previous worldview slip away.

In When They See Us, Ava DuVernay has provided a reminder that this happens to many disadvantaged children far too early.

The mini-series begins as a celebration of innocence, filled with bright colors and cinematography that helps provide the hazy, dream-like quality we associate with youth, while also depicting the character of Harlem in the ‘80’s. All this rather drastically switches to the horrors of the interrogation, the trial and the corruption of the case. Viewers will undoubtedly watch with anger as Fairstein and her team knowingly warp facts and ignore the truth, relentlessly persecuting the boys they refer to as “animals.”

But the anger viewers feel here will be just the beginning, as the series crescendos into its most raw and memorable work: episodes three and four. It is here that DuVernay’s directing really shines.

In these heartbreaking episodes, we see the effects of prison on the five boys and their loved ones, in a truly harrowing viewing experience.  Families are slowly torn apart, even after the boys are released. We watch Raymond’s happiness at returning home melt into feelings of frustration, as he tries to enter a family he can now scarcely relate to. We wince as, in one of the most horrific scenes in the series, an incarcerated Korey is dragged away from his mother after attempting to hug her during visiting hours, sobbing desperately all the while.  This series takes the time to focus not only on the horrors of incarceration, but the fractured families it leaves behind. The time that was stolen from these men can never be returned, and When They See Us does not shy away from this idea at all. Instead, it chooses to force its viewers to sit in the pain and discomfort of it. Because of this, the sheer brutality of many scenes make When They See Us especially difficult to watch.

But When They See Us is not solely a story about discrimination, tragedy, or injustice, like so many tales about minorities are. Instead, it creates leads that are much more than just what has happened to them. They were wronged, but DuVernay makes sure they are not defined exclusively by the horrors they suffered, and that the series displays the strength of those who aided and believed in the boys as well, not just the abuse of those who harmed them.

DuVernay shows the boys as trumpet players and baseball fans. She emphasizes that they are good friends, earnest sons, and hopeful young men. Scenes depict that in hidden moments. In this series, the trial is not just the trial. It is also a story of how the boys sat terrified in the courtroom, but still took time to whisper support to each other. This complexity is what makes DuVernay’s work the stunning mini-series that it is. It is a eulogy for lost time and innocence. However, it is also jam-packed with inspiring stories of hope and resilience throughout  — reminding us that in all of life’s hardships, there is strength to be found, and people willing to fight for justice.

Go watch When They See Us. Go watch it, right now.

Lead Image Credit: Netflix