Ava DuVernay’s compelling Netflix miniseries When They See Us is available for streaming on May 31. You will likely see a lot of people talking about it. In part, because the series explores the stories of the Central Park Five, the teenagers who were arrested for the 1989 assault and rape of Trisha Meili, a white woman known as the “Central Park jogger” until 2003. The story gripped the entire city of New York and forced society to take a hard look at the dangerous effects of racism and unconscious bias in both the criminal justice system and journalism.
You’ll also hear a lot about it because it is simply incredible. When They See Us does a masterful job of portraying boys (I’ve seen so many articles referring to them as “young men,” when they were in fact boys) whose lives were turned upside down as a result of negligence and discrimination. DuVernay challenges viewers to see five Black and Latino teens — Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana — in a way most people don’t today and certainly didn’t at the time: innocent. But for anyone who already sees how beautifully human Black and brown people are, the series is terribly difficult to watch.
Which is why I couldn’t get through it.
I had a lot of anxiety about watching the miniseries in the first place. I actively avoid exposing myself to images of Black people being brutalized. I refuse to desensitize myself to Black pain. I knew When They See Us would be hard for me to watch, but I wasn’t ready for it to be as hard as it actually was.
In the first episode, Duvernay introduces us to the five boys going about their everyday lives: Antron’s jovial sports talk with his father, Kevin’s goal to get first seat in his saxophone section, Korey hanging out with his girlfriend (played by Storm Reid), and more. As time goes on, you see the boys run to participate in a big group going to the park. From there, it escalates.
We know much of the story. The boys, a few of whom were originally arrested for assault and disorderly conduct in the park, were later questioned and coerced into confessing to rape and charged with attempted murder, rape, and assault. Despite lack of DNA evidence, a physical weapon and conflicting accounts, they were convicted and served between six and 13-plus years in prison. In 2002, Meili’s attacker Matias Reyes confessed, saying he acted alone. His DNA matched the physical evidence, and a state Supreme Court vacated the Central Park Five’s sentences on the district attorney’s recommendation. The five boys — now men — sued the city and reached a $41 million USD settlement in 2014.
Knowing the story doesn’t make When They See Us any easier to watch. I constantly flinched as detectives banged on the table or struck the boys in the face while they were being questioned. I repeatedly paused and took deep breaths, convincing myself to continue. I got angry when detectives questioned Kevin without a parent present despite the fact that he was a minor. I wept as Antron’s father (portrayed by the incredibly talented Michael K. Williams) terrifyingly told his son to “tell the police what they want to hear,” after being intimidated himself. What truly broke me was seeing Korey (played by Jharrel Jherome from Moonlight) being physically beaten, then videotaped confessing a crime he didn’t commit. I turned it off. I had to.
DuVernay does precisely what she set out to do. She makes us see these boys — as individuals, not the “Central Park Five” — and ultimately forces us to look at how their entire worlds were dismantled by incarceration.
"When you incarcerate one person you're incarcerating their family, their future, their community," DuVernay told NPR. "In the large numbers that we're incarcerating people, you're incarcerating a generation of people. ... It's something that we need to look at with knowledge of what it is — not just look at and say 'It's a shame.'"
But to be honest, I saw the Central Park Five as boys before I ever saw any film about them. I saw the youth that had been stripped from them when I covered the city’s settlement in 2014. And I couldn’t stand to watch Black boys get terrorized; Black fathers get intimidated as a result of a white power structure; Black mothers struggle to protect their babies; and Black families get torn apart. I’m all too aware of that truth, and When They See Us is a harrowing — albeit brilliant — reminder.
DuVernay told NPR her goal wasn’t to change anyone’s minds (New York City has never apologized, and former district attorney Linda Fairstein, ironically portrayed by Felicity Huffman in the miniseries, has publicly defended the boys’ confessions and convictions). Instead, DuVernay wanted to honour the men and the loss of youth they all mourn to this day. These are stolen years of their lives they’ll never get back, and the media attention and false convictions will forever be part of their stories.
I have no doubt I will finish When They See Us, and I encourage you to watch it when the time is right. I also support any Black or brown person who needs to take their time, or can’t watch at all because the humans being brutalized on-screen look just like them or their families. Simply existing as a Black person is difficult, and it’s okay to decide to protect yourself, especially when the world won’t. DuVernay’s miniseries surely drives that point home.