Chances are, by now, you have heard about When They See Us, the limited series on Netflix directed by Ava DuVernay. It focuses on the story of the “Central Park Five,” five Black and Latinx teenage boys who were convicted of raping and severely injuring a white woman in Central Park in 1989. Even though they were convicted of the crime and served time, they were all innocent. They were released from jail and their convictions vacated, but their lives were already irrevocably and traumatically altered.
Since its premiere on May 31st, When They See Us has been the most watched series on Netflix. And for a very good reason. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are many people out there who are largely unaware of the case and the story. This is especially true for non-New Yorkers and people under a certain age. Even now, 30 years later, there are so many things about this case that are still incredibly relevant.
One small but extremely telling fact about the Central Park Five case has to do with our current president. At the time, he was arguably one of the richest men in New York City, a business and real estate mogul. Though he had literally no connection to the case, he felt the need to insert himself into the narrative. Within weeks of the assault, he had taken out a full page ad in four local newspapers calling for the death penalty to be reinstated in New York. While he didn’t explicitly state he wanted the boys executed, you don’t have to read very much between the lines on this one.
This man spent tens of thousands of dollars to demonize children. And over the years, he has maintained his stance, even though there was no legitimate evidence, and someone else confessed to the crime. Even during his campaign in 2016, he was still running his mouth about it.
But more importantly, DuVernay’s series peels back the layers of the American legal system and how it is designed against people of color. In the early moments of When They See Us, we see Linda Fairstein, the the head of New York’s sex crimes division at the time, make the call that the boys who were brought in for civil disobedience were likely suspects in the unrelated rape and assault. Fairstein is dogged in her approach, setting the wheels in motion for nearly everything that happens next.
It’s worth noting that with the release of the series, Linda Fairstein’s life has been turned upside down, and rightfully so. She has been dropped by her publisher, and Glamour Magazine has taken back her Woman of the Year award, which she received in 1994, only a few years after the Central Park jogger case went to trial. Obviously, there are two sides and then there’s the truth, but given what we know now, her involvement in the ruination of these boys’ lives is huge. She has spoken out about the film, calling it a fabrication and accusing Ava DuVernay of slander.
The boys, who were between the ages of 14 and 16, were all separated by the police and interrogated for hours. During the interrogations they were denied contact with each other, they were not offered access to legal counsel, and none of their parents were present until much later in the process. They were also physically assaulted, not allowed to go to the bathroom, and spent hours without food or drink. Keep in mind, these were young boys. Practically babies. And if you’re a young boy of color being interrogated by the police, you have learned to tell the police whatever will keep you alive.
Ava DuVernay puts you straight into the action with each episode of the series, and it is quite frankly brutal to watch. People of color are being forced to relive the trauma of our people on screen. But you can’t successfully tell the story without the brutality and the trauma. Because, while it is hard to watch, it is steeped in so much truth that we cannot continue to ignore. Nothing about this is easy to swallow, and honestly that’s what makes it so important to watch.
I knew of the case previously, my father has a relationship with Yusef Salaam, one of the five men who were wrongfully convicted, and his mother. I realize that you can know the nuts and bolts of something, and seeing it play out in front of your eyes is very different. As a Black woman, and as the mother of a son, watching this was very hard. There were times when it all got to be too much and I would turn off the television.
While watching, I thought about all of the Black boys in my life. My nephews and my younger cousins. I constantly fear for their safety, and shows like this, that use painstaking detail to tell the story trigger that fear. I watched many scenes with bated breath, cringing and closing my eyes when it got to be too much.
Black and Latinx men, especially those who are convicted of crimes, are often seen as less than human. But with When They See Us, these boys, now men, are given a chance to be seen as human. The fact that they were given the moniker “The Central Park Five” makes them sound like a gang of bad guys, a “pack of wolves” as is used in the series.
But they’re not bad guys; they’re kids, victims of a system designed to fail them. They are Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Antron McCray, five men who lost their childhoods on that April night. The New York City legal system robbed them of their youth, their prospects, and their chances to reach their highest potential. In spite of this, they have all thrived.
After their sentences were vacated, they began the process of suing New York City for civil rights violations in connection with the case. After a decade, the city paid the men a settlement of about $40 million in 2014. Richardson, Salaam, Santana and McCray received about $7.1 million; Wise received $12.2 million since he was in jail six years longer than the others.
When They See Us has done exactly what the creators set out to do. It has given a face and a voice to men who were seen as faceless and voiceless for too long. It pays tribute to all of the men and women who still remain that way to this day. If you haven’t watched it yet, you owe it to yourselves to do so as soon as possible.
When They See Us and its companion special When They See Us Now are both available on Netflix.