When They See Us (A Response)

This post, which I’m calling a response, not a review, because it’s not, is about the Ava DuVernay Netflix mini-series When They See Us.

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(Marquis Rodriguez as young Raymond Santana learning his fate in When they see Us)

As a Black person, even being African/Black Caribbean not African American, there is certain content you have to steel yourself to take in. 12 Years a Slave was one of those for me – I had to work my way up to watching it and it sit in my spirit for a long time after (particularly the character played by Lupita Nyongo, her experience during the course of the film and the life you imagine for her after the main character steps back in to his life leaving her and others like her behind, in bondage).

As a Black person, I have a love-hate relationship with these tales of black misery which seem to be the only type of story of Blackness Hollywood wants to tell. I love that the truth is being ventilated, I hate that already traumatized people (by which I mean Black people – several of whom I know can’t even watch these films) are being re-traumatized. Plus too often Hollywood Green Books it.

But having ridden a wave of bewilderment, anger, and… just tears and tears and tears, while watching When They See Us, I do hope all people will see it.

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(four of the five incarcerated boys in When They See Us)

The story Ava tells of the five Black and Latino boys (literally boys, 14-16) incarcerated for years after being branded the Central Park Five for the brutal 1989 rape of a white female jogger needs to be known – and the villains of the tale need to be outed. In the latter category are, by my count, the person who actually perpetrated the vicious assault; the media with its usual rush to judgment; the current president of the US who before there was a single conviction took out a full page ad calling for the death penalty for the boys (something for which he has still not apologized notwithstanding that they were fully exonerated thanks to a confession and DNA evidence, and subsequently received a settlement from New York City); the police who leaned on the boys with violence and intimidation for more than a day without food, bathroom breaks, legal counsel, or even their parents present (not in an accidental way but deliberately); all but one of the prison guards (one of the most vicious a Black man) who went out of their way to make life hell for Korey, the one boy sent to adult prison; but especially the prosecutors – Linda Fairstein (who has since become a bestselling author of crime fiction I’ll never read) and Elizabeth Lederer (reportedly a law professor), not for doing their jobs (which would have been fair) but for not being fair in so doing. They knew the ‘confessions’ were coerced out of boys who were confused, didn’t understand their rights, and just wanted to go home; they knew the physical evidence didn’t hold up and that the ‘confessions’ contradicted the facts of the case e.g. re where the jogger was attacked. They didn’t care – some still don’t.

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We often talk of the system (when it comes to race) – I do it too – but sometimes we forget that people work within those systems who either through their own agendas, latent racism, or just failure to see the cases that come before them as people, represent the worst of the system – a system that is acknowledged to incarcerate Black and Brown people at a higher rate (see DuVernay’s Oscar nominated Netflix documentary, The 13th).

These boys are victims of that system. #fact

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(harrowing prison visit involving Niecy Nash, the mother, and Jharrel Jerome, the son)

But they are also complex, flawed, human survivors of that system. The story Ava tells doesn’t begin and end with their identity as the Central Park Five. She shows their familial relationships, their dreams, their loves, their stumbles…and especially, heartbreakingly, their youth. This film is well cast – there is no other way to see the boys we meet in the first episode than as boys, boys  the age of the boys in my own family. The pain these families go through, lacking the resources to properly help their boys is palpable. These families are not perfect, nor are they carbon copies of each other – not economically, not in how they respond, nor in the support they are able to offer while their boys (one of whom was incarcerated in adult prisons where he was routinely abused, when he wasn’t going crazy in solitary) are locked up. And when they get out, because getting out, the series reminds us, is a trial in itself, especially when you’re required to register as a sex offender.
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(one of the boys, grown, trying to move on in a scene from episode 3)

The easiest episode for me emotionally was episode three wherein I actually found myself laughing at some of the lighter bits – like the sister who tells her brother about a new beau on a family visit as a way of encouraging him to find his own hope, his own something to look forward to.  There are periods in that episode of the four boys who went to juvie trying and flailing (sic) to catch their lives when they get out. There is love but there is also hate and lack of understanding or compassion even in their own families. Notably absent from this episode is Korey Wise, the boy who went to adult prison and there is reason for that as the final episode, episode 4 – the hardest episode to watch – is entirely his story.

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Thing is he was the most innocent if there’s such a thing. He went to the precinct to support his friend who was hauled in by the police, and for his efforts got a confession beaten out of him, and was perhaps more confused than anyone as the system worked him. He was completely abandoned except by the apparitions he conjured in his mind, like his high school girl friend (with whom he fantasizes a different outcome and has a perfect fantasy date – in his mind), and his trans sister, another outcast, murdered while he was in prison. What this boy goes through doesn’t seem real and yet we know it is.
If I have one criticism of this film, it’s that it’s too real. But that’s necessary – and the way it’s shot unflinchingly capturing the boys’ emotions as their world shifts around them, without pausing to explaining itself to them, the moments it takes to remind us that they are just boys – capturing their innocence in very poignant ways is … beautiful. A heartbreaking beauty but beautiful nonetheless.

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(the film touches on the impact on families and community of the incarcerated)

Kudos, Ava (you got the characterization right, the era, the music, the flat tops, the tone, the pacing, the story beats, the mood, you got all of us with any heart out here in our feelings). I actually wish this film could be in Oscar contention though I understand why it worked better as a mini-series where it could be unrushed in telling its five stories. But short of that I call Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG nominations for several of the actors but especially Jharrel Jerome who played Korey Wise, the boy who took the brunt of the punishment, the actor who convincingly played him as both a boy and a young man while the others had two actors for these two phases of life.

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(Kaleel Harris as Antron McCray with his legal aid lawyer played by Joshua Jackson)

And I urge you to watch this series, if you’re reading this, so that when activists say #BlackLivesMatter you’ll understand (hopefully) that they’re not saying all lives don’t matter but that within a system that sees some as animals (a term used to describe the boys in the film, more than once) and treats them as disposal, they must assert their humanity in order to be seen. The title of the series #Whentheyseeus underscores this point and puts the onus on the viewer as much as anyone else to see better.

2 thoughts on “When They See Us (A Response)

  1. Thanks for your great review. I had just watched the 20/20 or whatever news show special and then I saw the series pop up on Netflix and I’m like, “Wait. Didn’t I see this already? How is it different from the 20/20 special?”

    The 20/20 special was heartbreaking and infuriating. So awful what those kids went through. I will definitely watch the Netflix series and cry some more and get angry all over again.

    • I’ve seen the same documentary and interviews with them. Ava’s film though was next level; it’s not like watching a repeat of a story you already know…it is a revelation. But, yeah, bring tissues. I actually cried more than I thought I would but it needs to be seen.

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