“It’s a start, a work of art
To revolutionize make a change nothing’s strange
People, people we are the same
No we’re not the same
‘Cause we don’t know the game
What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved let’s get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness
(Yo) bum rush the show
You gotta go for what you know
To make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be”
—Public Enemy, Fight the Power
Three things happened in 1989. In April, five black and Latino teenagers were arrested for allegedly raping a white woman who was jogging in Central Park. In May, Donald Trump weighed in, spending $85,000 on a full page ad in the Daily News calling for the return of the death penalty. In June, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing landed with meteoric force in theaters.
Ava DuVernay’s important and riveting new Netflix series When They See Us doesn’t explicitly show us that the Central Park Five case took place in the same year that Do the Right Thing blew a hole through American culture and the film industry, but she nods to it all the same simply by booming Public’s Enemy’s Fight the Power. From that moment on, it’s clear that DuVernay is doing more than just recreating known events. She plans on doing something much, much bigger than that.
Two opposing forces were at play in New York City in 1989, palpably and profoundly felt in Lee’s depiction of Brooklyn at the flame’s hottest point. That Lee’s film erupts in violence by the end — violence that stemmed from a volatile blend of misunderstanding and oppression — was part of the ongoing debate about race, angst, and ultimately justice in America. Was Lee’s ending right or wrong, audiences argued, with opinions dividing down racial lines. Did Lee’s film excuse violence, some asked. No, it was justified, others said. Is the message too angry? Does the film bring catharsis or act as a catalyst for escalation? There is no doubt that Lee’s perspective and voice represented a shockwave to the landscape of American film. The fact that nobody yet knew whether to reward him or scorn him, it’s worth noting, is proof that his vision was way ahead of its time.
The Central Park Five case, which remains among the most horrific miscarriages of justice in American history, was used as a propaganda tool to push the city toward brutal crackdowns and harsher punishments. It fueled a desire to clean up the streets and rid the city of seemingly out-of-control gangs, ushering in an era of draconian anti-crime policies when Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York.
DuVernay’s scripted series dives in again to the case, with the specific focus on how the suspects were railroaded, how little they knew of their rights, and how the rush to judgment on their guilt turned an entire city against them.
Trump’s irresponsible and dangerous full-page ad tells you all you need to know about him — up to and including his refusal to acknowledge his mistake when the youths were proven innocent and his contemptuous quote that he “likes picketing” when protests erupted outside Trump Tower. Even as recently as in 2016, Trump stands by his ad and his own stubborn verdict. DuVernay wants to spotlight that information front and center, to make sure everyone who watches When They See Us knows the toxic part Trump played in the travesty.
When They See Us tells the story of the wrongful convictions in the first two parts – DuVernay very deliberately shows us the human side of each of the five, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. They were between the ages of 14 and 16, though only Wise was convicted as an adult, at 16-year-old, and put in maximum security prison. While a five suffered unthinkable emotional abuse just by being forced to confess to something they didn’t do because they were scared and manipulated by people who should have had their backs, there is no question that there is one who suffered more than the others.
DuVernay saves the story of Korey Wise for the 4th and last episode in the series. Episode 4 is one of the most urgent and powerful things I’ve ever seen on television. Without a doubt, it stands above and apart from the entire series, both in terms of its graphic violence, its depiction of what it must have been like to be 16 and thrown into the pit — just a kid trying to survive around hard core convicted criminals. Probably the only way he could find to survive was to request solitary confinement — in itself a form of torture.
The 4th episode is harrowing, and unforgettable. It is DuVernay’s best work as a director and considering what she’s done so far, that’s saying a lot. It is as though the entire series is setting you up for what you’re about to see in that last part, where we experience what it must have been like for Korey Wise — and to see it through his eyes. You can’t look away.
Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise is a standout. Soaring in his performance, he absolutely shines as he embodies Wise. . What DuVernay does in the last episode of the series is to elevate the character of Korey Wise to represent all wrongfully accused black men who for centuries have had to carry the burden of being a threat to white women — a threat to rape them, a threat hiding in the bushes, a threat for merely existing, for walking down the street, for sharing an elevator, for even so much as looking them in the eye. DuVernay takes their collective suffering and puts it all in this character, in this episode of this series, making When they See Us at once something about America now as much as it’s about America then.
DuVernay, who also made the award-winning documentary about mass incarceration, 13th, is clearly someone who is committed to fighting to eliminate this kind of injustice – both to understand the crimes of the past, but also for the future – to keep innocent black men out of prison and stop the pattern of ongoing oppression. She attacks the material with ferocity, but tempers it with compassion. As usual, with her work, some of the scenes between men and women are infused with fiery sensuality that really is her thumbprint as a director, but she’s upped her visual game significantly, drawing from influences like Spike Lee, Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese.
While the entire series is moving, powerful stuff – it is the last episode that lingers after it’s over. We all know what happened to the now absolved Central Park Five. We know what happened when the actual rapist confessed, had his DNA tested and asked that the sentences of the falsely accused youths be vacated. They were. We know that Trump still calls them guilty. We know that the man who says that is the President of the United States. That fact alone is one of the best reasons to amplify, and to talk loudly about, this case and this formidable, exceptional Netflix series.
After losing his first bid for mayor in 1989, Rudy Giuliani tried again 5 years later, vowing to “clean up” the city. Much of the anger that propelled him to office were rooted in the lies told to voters about the Central Park Five. The black teenagers were seen as scapegoats, paraded on TV and newspapers to scare people to such a degree – and to do it without any hard evidence, and with sloppy, shotty police work and a rush to judgment that should shame those who were involved in the case. As it happens, one of those is Felicity Huffman, who is currently enduring her own saga of shame – but that’s another story.
It would take years for this case to be fully discussed and disclosed to the American public. They deserved to be treated as human beings, with civil rights and proper representation. And, it should not have been up to a chance meeting on a prison yard to finally find the rapist and set the path for freedom for these kids. KIDS.
DuVernay’s work has always been good. If you don’t know it, you should. I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, Selma, the TV series Queen Sugar and now, the unmissable When They See Us. Her eye has always been refined by intelligence, depth, sensuality, complexity — as a director, a producer, an activist she has a lot to say — but here we see all the aspects of her talent coalesce to reveal the complete artist she has become — with a voice that won’t go unheard and a vision that can’t be denied.