DuVernay Does It Again
When They See Us
Directed by Ava Duvernay
Although it’s been a minute since I watched this incredible limited series, it’s impact has not softened. Ava DuVernay’s impeccable silhouette shots remain ingrained in my mind and instill the same level of anger, sadness, and despair for the five lives stripped of innocence, childhood, and opportunity.
DuVernay has yet to fail us with her work, consistently setting new standards and flawlessly portraying stories of black youth. Just like her recent documentary, 13th, we’re back in the prison system, but this time, with a scripted limited series based on just how corrupt the system that fills them is. Based on the well-known story, the “Central Park 5” consisted of five young men falsely accused for the rape of Patricia Meili. When They See Ustells the story we didn’t hear when our screens were crowded with one-sided mainstream media narratives. Enjoying their typical teenage lives skipping school, chasing girls, and hanging out in the park, these boys feel like they own New York City. The feeling of teenage invincibility ends abruptly when the boys are confronted by police in central park for a series of petty crimes, and they scatter.
Once cops learn of Meili’s attack, they quickly pin it on the boys – whose skin color makes them easy to frame. They’re coerced and manipulated into admitting to the crime, with detectives promising to let them go following the questioning. But they don’t get to go home. They’re sent to trial, and sentenced to time in prison. Knowing that they have coerced the boys into confessing seems not to weigh on the conscious of any of the detectives.
This denial is not exclusive to the onscreen story. Although New York City gave the men a settlement of $41 million, they refused to admit any wrongdoing. The prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, has defended herself against accusations made in the series. Donald Trump, the same Donald Trump who took out a full page ad in the paper, calling the central park 5 “animals and rapists” and encouraging their death, sits in the oval office. Given the timing of when this series was made, the placement of Trump’s comments in the second episode were impeccable and necessary. I can’t imagine being one of those men or their families, knowing that the president of the country you live in was once wishing specifically for your death.
When They See Usmay as well be Unbelievable’s fraternal twin. Two productions from the same family but complete opposites, Unbelievableis another true crime limited series detailing how the criminal justice system disadvantages marginalized groups. Although this series focuses on the opposite scenario, where a young girl is coerced into stating that she imagined a rape, the police tactics detailed in both stories are equally disheartening. With the victim an orphan, detectives impatiently and irritably wrote off that she has mental issues and dismissed the case, just as it was easy for prosecutors to frame the central park five.
I could go on for days about this series’ content, but it would be a disgrace to ignore the production value that made this such a beautifully crafted piece of cinema. DuVernay’s signature close ups and scoreless scenes engrossed with powerful dialogue are flooded with emotion and rawness. Beautiful framing and the use of low lighting highlights the facial features of the actors, making scenes feel intimate yet bold. Outside of the cinematography, the acting was extraordinary, and it was clear how strong of a connection DuVernay built with each actor to bring honest portrayals. In Oprah’s Interview following the show, DuVernay reveals that the men were clear at the beginning of this project that if this story was going to be told, it needed to be partitioned – there were 4 and then there was 1. That one being Korey Wise, whose separate and harsh story which contrasts heavily compared to the others encompasses the entire fourth episode. Wise was 16 at the time of the alleged crime, and he, unlike the others who were sent to juvey, was immediately sent to an adult detention center. His story rings themes of loneliness, abandonment, and the need for human connection. Playing both the adolescent and adult Korey Wise, Jerome’s ability to trap the audience with him in his cell brings an award winning performance.
I chose to watch this because I wanted to become more educated about the Black Lives Matter movement, but I also was enamored that it won a Peabody Award. Upon watching Duvernay’s virtual acceptance speech, it took time for me to process her words. There are plenty of poor, innocent people behind bars while the rich and guilty walk free, only increasing their power. Beyond this, I think what both When They See Usand Unbelievablehave taught me is how important it is to recognize our biases. In both, I’m not sure either prosecutor meant harm, and I want to believe that the ultimate goal was justice, but that justice won’t exist unless we can take a step back and recognize how we treat people of all backgrounds.
I can’t barge in and change the ways of a system that’s so deeply corrupted, but I can do something actionable. It can be small, it can be personal, and it does not have to make waves but it should make ripples. Your actions should get people talking, questioning, researching, and changing. Knowing is the seed of change, and I’m thankful this is out there, planting a seed for Netflix subscribers across the world.