“When They See Us” is a riveting and emotional 4 part drama Netflix series directed by Ava Duvernay, that revisits the story of the infamous “Central Park 5” case, and takes a deeper look into the justice system and its mistreatment of minorities.
In 1989, New York City for many was a mystical and mosaic place, but for others, it was a city thriving off greed on Wall Street and a hot bed for crime with lack of hope for minorities in the inner city with the war on drugs at its peak. A vile and volatile time in the city, one of the epicenters of the city was Central Park. A refuge and safe haven, an idyllic place, by the 1980s becomesa barrier and metaphor for the broader dysfunction in NYC. With racial tensions already amplified, one night in Central Park set the city on fire fueled by politics and the justice system.
On April 19th, Trisha Meili, a white young female investment banker, was found viciously beaten, raped and barely alive after being attacked while jogging in Central Park. Out of a number of young Black and Latino teens that were in the park that night, the police arrested Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Jr., Antron McCray and Korey Wise, ages 14-16, who would be known infamously as “The Central Park 5.”Despite no DNA or physical evidence, the five young men were found guilty because of video confessions leading McCray, Richardson, Salaam and Santana to serve 7 years of a 5-15 years sentence and Wise serving 13 years. In 2002, a man by the name Matias Reyesadmitted the he acted alone in the horrific crime leading to Wise’s release from prison, a settlement of $41 million and ultimately, the exoneration of the five men in 2014.
Ava’s “When They See Us”captures the heart-wrenching stories of the hideous injustice the 5 young men had to endure three decades ago. It is important and necessary to watch the series which gives insight into the scandalous workings of the law. The first episode shows the boys as they were prior to entering the park on the fateful night; five innocent boys without a care in the world. Antron talking sports with his father, Kevin excited about playing in his school orchestra, Yusef chilling, Raymond being smooth checking out his reflection in a car window and Wise, like most teen boys, flirting with his girl. At its end, it is filled with their wrongful arrest and coerced confessions with their families trying their best to protect them but are pushed further into entrapment. The second episode explores the trial and bail system with Korey, Raymond, Antron and Kevin having to go back to a cell because they were unable to make bail, while Yusef going back home because he did. Though you are aware of the outcome as a viewer, you’ve become emotionally attached and hoping for a different outcome. Unfortunately, in the end, the verdict remained they were found guilty and their worlds were forever crushed. The third episode embarks on their imprisonment and their very much complicated attempts to reenter society as four of the five boys are eventually released.
The final episode, arguably the hardest to watch, displays a richly theatrical portrait of the life of the series’ most tragic, but strongest and courageous character, Korey Wise. There is admiration for Korey from the first episode because as it is depicted, Wise wasn’t in the park that night, but was looking out for his friend, Yusef accompanying him after he was told to come down to the police station. Wise, arrested at 16 never saw the light of day being placed in an adult prison, spending years in solitary confinement and fighting for his innocence. The episode pulls you in showing how trapped Wise is physically, but mentally shows how free he can be with a daydream date to Coney Island, giving a moment of liberation to Wise and the viewer itself. The story would take a turn in the boys, now men’s favor, as Korey has a run-in with Matias Reyes, the man who actually committed the crime and whose confession lead to Korey’s freedom and their exoneration.
“When They See Us” is an eye opener on how society will look at young men of color and reduce them to a wolfpack,as the media made them out to be. The media, jury, NYPD, attorney general’s office, prosecutors Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer and a certain real estate investor now turned U.S. president, wronged them so much, painting them guilty before any hearing. According to St Johns University Professor Natalie Byfield, a former NY Daily News who covered the story, collected samples of 251 articles representing the coverage of case. Only 12 articles used the term alleged. Because of Duvernay’s brilliant masterpiece of now “The Exonerated 5”, we’re forced to take a real look at this justice system and question it. For the Scottsboro Boys of 1931, Emmitt Till and other cases where young boys who were lied on and later exonerated for crimes they did not commit. There have been too many reminders that there is an injustice and hellish system put in place and it’s time to hold the lawmakers accountable so that one day we can be truly be the United States and in the immortal words of the late, great Donnie Hathaway, “Someday we all be free.”
By: Jamal Clarke
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