Review: When They See Us

Caleel Harris in When They See Us

When They See Us is the true story of the 5 Black and Brown teenagers jailed for raping a woman in New York’s Central Part in 1989. They were innocent and finally exonerated after spending many years in prisons.

A four-part mini series on Netflix, When They See Us was written and directed by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay has a history of taking the lead, taking action, in providing concrete evidence and examples around such social issues as our broken (in)justice system and systemic racism in the US. She’s a leader and ally in raising up women and women directors of color.

The Genius of Ava DuVernay

A look at Ava DuVernay’s career and impact is needed here.

DuVernay’s 2012 Middle of Nowhere told the story of a woman struggling to support her incarcerated man. The film won the Best Director Prize at the 2012 Sundance film festival. She was the first African-American woman to receive the award. It also brought together DuVernay, her recurring actor David Oyelowo, and cinematographer Bradford Young. Young is the lens behind DuVernay’s vision in many projects, including this most recent one.

In 13th, DuVernay used the documentary format to show how the 13th Amendment, the Jim Crow era, the war on drugs, and the law and order movement allowed white America to put so many people of color behind bars. People who were innocent, as the 5 young teens in When They See Us were, or people with long sentences for minor crimes.

I believe what we see on our screens changes us. Ava DuVernay changes us for the better.

With Selma, DuVernay took “the microcosm of the marches in 1965 in Selma, Alabama to tell a sweeping saga that remains painfully relevant today. By focusing on this singular moment in a long battle, a vast epic is revealed.”

DuVernay teamed up with Oprah and OWN to create several seasons of Queen Sugar, a series directed only by women. The series focuses on one black family in Louisiana as they deal with racism. Her first big budget film, A Wrinkle in Time, put a young Black woman scientist in the lead role.

The arc of Ava DuVernay’s work demonstrates a type of activism and leadership that moves a nation. I believe what we see on our screens changes us. Ava DuVernay changes us for the better.

When They See Us

All the themes of how incarceration harms families, of police intimidation and brutality, of the injustices of the legal system, are brought home in When They See Us.

On the night a white woman was raped, beaten and left for dead in Central Park in 1989, a whole bunch of African American and Hispanic boys from Harlem were running through the park. They weren’t there to hurt or bother anyone. They weren’t near the location where the woman was raped.

The police randomly picked up 4 boys from the group. A 5th boy went to the station to support his friend. When I say boys, I’m talking about teens from age 14 to 16. Boys.

Aunjanue Ellis and Ethan Herige in When They See Us
Yusef Salaam his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) entering the court house

The boys were Antron McCray (Jovan Adepo and Caleel Harris as a boy), Kevin Richardson (Justin Cunningham and Asanta Blackk as a boy), Yusef Salaam (Chris Chalk and Ethan Herige as a boy), Raymond Santana (Freddy Miyares and Marquis Rodriguez as a boy), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome).

Jharrel Jerome in When They See Us
Korey Wise tries to explain his innocence

These boys were randomly chosen. Under the orders of Detective Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman), they were coerced by police officers into confessing. The facts were manipulated and lied about so that Prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) could present a case to the DA that would stand up in court.

The police made no effort at all to find the real rapist.

Marquis Rodriguez in When They See Us
Raymond Santana hears the verdict

The boys had varying degrees of parental support from good to nonexistent to actually harmful. None of the boys had a lawyer present during the interrogations. Some of the parents were there, but the parents were as intimidated by the police as the boys were. During the trial, the lawyers (who weren’t even all criminal lawyers) did their best to point out the obvious flaws in the prosecution’s case, but the boys were found guilty anyway.

Most of the boys went to juvie. Korey Wise, who was 16, was sent to adult prison. He was the boy who just went to the police station with his friend Yusef as support. Yet he served the longest time in prison of all of them.

As a coincidence, merely by accident, Korey Wise was incarcerated in a prison with the real rapist. The real rapist told Korey who he was and was willing to confess. He’d already confessed to numerous other rapes. DNA evidence from the scene verified his story and the 5 men were exonerated of all charges.

After horrifying years in prison and lost youth, these 5 men were set free. But there are many more men in prison right now with similar stories who don’t somehow stumble on the real criminal and find him willing to confess. America, land of the free where all men are created equal, puts men in prison simply because of their skin color. Women, too.

Telling the Story

The mini-series begins on the night of the rape. We see the boys going about their concerns – worrying over making first chair in band or wanting to get fried chicken with a girl. Then they head for the park. We see the arrests and interrogations. We go through the trail with them. We get to know their families.

We see them grow up behind bars until each one is released. Their support systems outside are different. As each one returns to their families and tries to find their way, there are a few flashbacks – reminders, really – keeping us grounded in who each was before.

At the very end, we see the real men and learn about their lives now.

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Poster for When They See Us with review by Old Ain't Dead

Watch the trailer

The Criminal System of Injustice Featurette

You get a look at the real men of this story in the featurette.

If you haven’t watched this series yet, I urge you to do it. In fact, if you haven’t watched Ava DuVernay’s entire oeuvre, I urge you to do it.

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7 thoughts on “Review: When They See Us”

  1. i am an Ava DuVernay fan and i enjoyed this mini series but preferred the Ken Burns documentary.

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