Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries, “When They See Us,” follows in the same vein as FX’s 2017 hit show “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” examining the viewpoints and experiences of both the defendants as well as the prosecutors and lawyers involved with the case.
The show examines the inner workings of the NYPD and the New York justice system during the investigation of the rape and beating of a jogger in New York’s Central Park on the night of April 19, 1989. In addition to showing the process police used to identify subjects, the series also shows the activities that each member of the “Central Park Five” took part in during the hours leading up to Trisha Meili’s rape.
The series follows Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise. The boys, varying in age from 14 to 16 at the time of the crime, were part of a group of more than 30 individuals that took to Central Park’s trailways on that night. All five were convicted and sentenced to five to 15 years in prison for their alleged involvement with the crime.
In 2001, Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist serving a life sentence in New York state, admitted to raping Meili alone and provided details to police that only the assailant could know. DNA evidence also solidified his claim. In 2002, the New York Supreme Court vacated all charges for the members of the “Central Park Five.”
The experiences of New York prosecutors Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, the accused’s lawyers and lastly, the families of each boy are also shown in the four-part series.
Fairstein, who until the show’s release had been a best-selling author and a member of multiple not-for-profit boards, has since been dropped by her book publisher, Dutton, and has resigned from a number of boards she was a part of, including at her alma mater, Vassar College.
The series covers events that occurred from 1989 to 2014, starting with the day of the rape. "When They See Us” ends with members of the “Central Park Five” receiving a settlement from the state of New York for their wrongful convictions.
Displaying how each member of the “Central Park Five” interacted with their parents, family and friends, the series does a superb job of giving viewers an inside look at the lives of New York youth during the 80’s.
The first episode is an intense experience, with many on social media stating that it took multiple sittings to finish the episode, which I would agree. After four sittings, I finished the hour-long episode.
The episode depicts the actions of the boys and their families in the hours leading up to that fateful night in Central Park. A sense of impending doom overwhelms the viewer as they see members of the “Central Park Five” converge together to go to the park.
Members of the large group are shown beating and harassing trail-goers with the central characters standing by and being passive viewers. Police arrive on the seen and McCray, the youngest of the group, is hit in the face by a police helmet after being tackled. Others make a run for it and escape back to their homes safe, or so they think.
The series carries heavy political undertones. President Donald Trump makes an appearance in the second episode, with an interview he did following the attack being shown on a television. Trump famously took out a full-page ad in The New York Times following the attack, calling for the death penalty and effectively labeling the boys as guilty. The ad had a significant effect on the public’s view of the suspects.
The series takes a strong stance on how the media affected the trial. The phrase “convicting them before they have their day in court” is used often and members of each family speak out against the media multiple times.
“When They See Us” is an emotionally-taxing watch. Beautifully shot and carried by fantastic acting, “When They See Us” is an important watch and is one of those rare works that inspires real-world action.