It’s easy to get infuriated by the story of the Central Park Five if you know the basic outline of the story. But what gets missed in that broad outline is the personal cost. You can see that outline in the 2012 documentary The Central Park Five. But writer/director Ava DuVernay isn’t just interested in what happened. In her powerful and astonishing four-part miniseries When They See Us, DuVernay expands the focus of the story beyond just the obvious racism and systemic injustice to show the emotional toll that injustice took on Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise and their families. The miniseries asks hard questions of its audience by never losing sight of the people of color who were sacrificed at the altar of white fears.
The story begins on April 19, 1989 when a white female jogger is raped and beaten nearly to death in Central Park. At that same time, a group of boys in Harlem were running around the park and in proximity to a couple other assaults that were happening around the same time. The heinousness of the crime and the viciousness of detective Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman, an unintentionally perfect bit of casting as a person who cares more about results than the law) leads to five young men who were in the area being picked pretty much at random–Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome)–and then interrogated at length to point the finger at each other. This gross abuse of power, facilitated by the justice system and the media, leads to the boys being convicted and incarcerated despite no physical evidence linking them to the crime. As adults, Antron (Jovan Adepo), Kevin (Justin Cunningham), Yusef (Chris Chalk), Raymond (Freddy Miyares), try to readjust to life on the outside even though the crime follows them wherever they go. Meanwhile, Korey (Jerome, the only actor to play both his younger and adult versions of the character) weathers a longer jail sentence since he was tried as an adult.
The politics of the story couldn’t be more vivid, but it would probably be a mistake to look at When They See Us as a political document. If you’re going to spend about five hours with this story, chances are you already agree with what’s presented–that the justice system and the media, largely staffed with white people, had no compunction in tossing these five boys–four black and one Hispanic–to the wolves in exchange for the illusion of justice. But if you’re someone who believes that it’s better for 100 innocent people to be convicted rather than risk one guilty person going free, then you’re probably not interested in this case. If you want to believe the system works because it’s always worked for you, then you’re probably not going to watch a miniseries that challenges that presumption.
But a single piece of art usually doesn’t sway the entire populace. The important first step is telling the story and reaching open minds (like the younger viewers who primarily use Netflix as their source of entertainment). While other directors have tackled systemic racial injustice, no one does it as surgically and as powerfully as DuVernay right now. When They See Us plays like a slow-motion, micro version of her terrific documentary 13th, showing the pipeline that funnels young men of color into the prison system because, among other reasons relating to capitalism and history, it makes the white majority feel comfortable. Despite having reasonably competent attorneys for trial, these boys never had a chance. A white woman, a totem of purity and innocence, was attacked near people of color, and those people of color had to suffer. Watching truth and justice be coldly cast aside may not be shocking to some audience, but it’s enraging all the same.