Although it takes a considerable amount of time to find its own unique voice and roar to vibrant, earth shaking, soul rending life, by the time it all wraps up Ava DuVernay’s epic miniseries When They See Us delivers some of the filmmaker’s most potent, unforgettable, and best work to date. Based on the tragic and incendiary true story of The Central Park Five, the four episode arc of When They See Us follows the timeline of one of America’s most infamous criminal cases, but each installment takes a different perspective. Some of them are more effective than others, but with the exception of one episode, they all play into a larger portrait of systemic racism in the American judicial system. A lot of this won’t surprise those familiar with the details of the infamously overturned case and the wrongful convictions it led to, but When They See Us provides viewers with further context and previously unshared asides that make for a harrowing, but enriching experience.
On April 19, 1989, 28-year old investment banker Trisha Meili was beaten and raped while jogging through New York’s Central Park. It immediately grabbed headlines, and the pressure was put on the police force to make immediate arrests in the case. After eyewitnesses reported that a group of Black and Latino teenagers were in the park “wildin’ out” that night, the NYPD rounded up a group of potential suspects: Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), all of them teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17. Only two of them knew each other when they were brought in for questioning, and none of them knew anything about the sexual assault in the park, despite all of them being somewhere in the area when it occurred. Cut off from their parents or any sort of legal counsel and being pressured by the unseen forces of the zealous head of the Manhattan D.A.’s sex crimes unit (Felicity Huffman) and a state prosecutor (Vera Farmiga) who can see holes in the case, but wants a slam dunk, the boys are forced and coerced into testifying that all five of them were involved in the crime. There’s no actual evidence, DNA or otherwise, directly linking any of them to the crimes; the testimonies given under duress were wildly contradictory; and the victim, who was in a coma for a considerable amount of time, has little memory of the incident and never got a look at who attacked and raped her. Still, this was enough for all five young men to get sentenced to juvenile detention centres or prison for the crime, despite maintaining their innocence years after their convictions and releases.
That groundwork makes up more or less the first two and least interesting episodes of When They See Us, but for anyone unfamiliar with the Central Park Five case and trial, it’s necessary for everything that follows. The first episode finds DuVernay (who served as the series’ primary writer, as well) letting viewers into the lives and families of these young men while simultaneously weaving a police procedural where the goal isn’t to provide justice and solve a crime through proper footwork and due diligence, but rather by the quickest and most underhanded means possible. The time spent with the teens and their families – which includes most notably Michael Kenneth Williams as Antron’s loving, but frightened father, John Leguizamo as Raymond’s overworked and stretched-thin dad, and Kylie Bunbury as shy, soft-spoken Kevin’s sister and closest confidant – is fruitful and heartbreaking, but the time spent with the cops and the lawyers frequently lapses into cartoonish territory.
While it’s hard to argue that these young men were mistreated (with the taped “confessions” largely a part of the readily available public consciousness), When They See Us paints its villains obviously and with a broad brush. William Sadler plays the obviously racist and lazy lead detective well, but that’s nothing new for the character actor. Farmiga tries her best across the first couple of episodes to bring some subtlety and ambiguity to her prosecutorial role, but DuVernay’s script frequently works against her. As for Huffman, she might as well have devil horns, a pitchfork, and a moustache to twirl in all of her scenes, with Fairstein portrayed as the embodiment of pure evil and suffering. While I’m sure a lot of these conversations happened, it’s hard not to think that such obvious evil within an organization like the New York Police Department would’ve been a bit more discreet in terms of how it was screwing over minorities. These people should be held accountable for their role in wrongfully railroading these young men into doing time for a crime they didn’t commit, but this isn’t a tactful and honest depiction of such evil. It’s akin to a Twitter or Reddit dragging; a filmmaking gambit designed to make the series eventual and hard won catharsis somewhat more manipulative that the true banality and honest terror of such tyranny.
Episode two of When They See Us stumbles the hardest once DuVernay switches from procedural and story about broken families and into to a bog standard courtroom drama. There are so many facets to talk about when it comes to the Central Park Five case – most of which are covered more succinctly in a 2012 documentary about the case, which remains the best single volume overview of the issues at hand – that it’s disappointing to watch DuVernay hammering home the same points over and over again. By this point in the series, viewers don’t need Antron’s fully capable, but painfully outmatched public defender (Joshua Jackson) repeatedly reminding about the lack of evidence. Instead of illustrating how miscarriages of justice are enacted through racial profiling and a desire for a police department to get “good press,” When They See Us becomes distressingly one note for a single episode, going over points the viewer already knows to be obvious. It’s an entry in the series full of speeches, grandstanding, and nothing that hasn’t been seen in legal dramas before. Even if the episode’s aim is true and just, it’s a slog to get through, especially for anyone who knows where things are ultimately heading.
But once the trial is out of the way, When They See Us gets back on track for its final two episodes, in which DuVernay reaffirms her status as a masterful filmmaker. The third episode looks at what happened when most of the young men are released from juvenile detention centres following their conviction and the challenges faced by their families to readjust and get on with their lives. Now adults, the men who get released fight to get and maintain jobs while their names are in the sex offender registry and work to rebuild the relationships they had to neglect while locked up. Furthermore, the system that they’re trying to break away from is putting every roadblock in their way to ensure that most of them will return to prison if/when they reoffend due to their lack of supports and feasible job opportunities. Sweet and soft spoken Kevin (now played by Justin Cunningham) frets that he never thought he’d “grow up to be somebody people hated.” Antron (Jovan Adepo) and Ray (Freddy Miyares) both struggle to rebuild relationships to their previously supportive fathers under different, but equally fraught circumstances, offering Williams and Leguizamo some of the best roles they’ve ever played in the process.
It’s around the third episode that When They See Us and DuVernay’s aims for the series come into sharpest focus. It’s clear that this post-incarceration period that energizes DuVernay most as a filmmaker, ditching the soft-focus, detail oriented look of the series’ first two episodes for a sharper and grittier tone. Although the city these young men are returning to has cleaned up since they were imprisoned, it has left them behind, and in many ways the city’s reticence to talk about old, unhealed wounds in a bid to move onward towards the future is more insidious than the original trial. This is the part of the Central Park Five story that never gets told; glossed over for the more easily digestible “feel good” story of the trial and their eventual exoneration in 2002, which are parts of the case that almost naturally lend themselves better to filmmaking cliches. After two episodes of watching these men go through unimaginable mental anguish, it’s even more soul crushing to behold the fact that their struggles are only beginning. When They See Us also goes beyond the margins to examine how each of their families – all of them low or middle class – have been devastated socially and financially within their communities. Justice will eventually be served for these young men, but When They See Us poignantly illustrates the long term effects that incarceration has on everyone around it, like a disease capable of sickening anyone who comes into contact with it.
One might’ve expected When They See Us to wrap up back in the police stations and courtrooms in a lead up to some sort of cathartic ending, but instead DuVernay scales things back as far as she can before the conclusion. The final episode doubles back to look at the struggle faced by Korey Wise alone. As the oldest of the teens to be convicted, Wise (who arguably provided the most damning and linking testimony at the trial) was the only one to be remanded to a maximum security prison, despite cooperating the best he could with the D.A. investigation. Jerome (who might be best known for his appearance in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight) is the only actor who plays his character as both a teen and as an adult, and when one considers DuVernay’s approach for the final installment, it proves to be one of the series’ best and most well reasoned decisions. As a barely literate young man incarcerated with older criminals who’re chomping at the bit to beat down a high profile convicted rapist, Jerome delivers and astonishing, unforgettable, and transformative performance that Emmy voters need to put at the top of their ballots. It’s a fully fledged arc of pain, sadness, paranoia, and depression behind bars that has never been seen on film before, bolstered by DuVernay’s best work to date and a starmaking turn from Jerome that will be seared into the memory of anyone who pays witness. While the last two episodes of When They See Us find DuVernay and one of her stars in top form, it’s the final one that could stand as one of the best films of the year on its own merits.
But that final episode wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t for the love, passion, dedication, and comprehensive detail DuVernay puts into the entirety of When They See Us. It’s a limited series worth sticking with, even when it seems like DuVernay might be spinning her wheels for a bit in the early going. It might work better as a four hour, single movie epic than it does as four episodes clocking in at nearly six hours, but it’s hard to deny the power of the story, the craft with which its told, and the performances given in its service. When They See Us is a powerful reminder of how fear, racism, and marginalization can turn a terrible tragedy into a seemingly never ending saga of pain and suffering. It’s an important case to remember and analyze, and DuVernay has done it in the most respectful and respectable way possible. It’s overall power, importance, and lasting impression as a series is impossible to understate.
When They See Us is available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, May 31, 2019.
Check out the trailer for When They See Us:
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