When They See Us (Ava DuVernay, 2019) – A must-see miniseries on injustice and racial prejudice

This will contain spoilers, however, most of this will touch on the case itself as opposed to spoilers surrounding the miniseries itself (in terms of form), so if you know about the case, this is safe reading!

There is a scene towards the middle of Spike Lee’s epic biopic Malcolm X (1992) where, whilst in prison for robberies (and his ultimate crime, having a white girlfriend at the time), he looks at the definition of black and the definition of white in the dictionary. The definition of black in the scene is as follows: ‘Black: Destitute of light, devoid of colour, enveloped in darkness, hence utterly dismal or gloomy as ‘the future looked black.’, soiled with dirt; foul, sullen, hostile, forbidding as ‘a black day.’, foully or outrageously wicked as ‘black cruelty.’, indicating disgrace, dishonour or culpability’, and the definition of white reads as ‘White: of the colour of pure snow, reflecting all of the rays of the spectrum – the opposite of black – free from spot or blemish, innocent, pure, without evil intent, harmless, honest, square-dealing and honourable.’ The man showing Malcolm X the definitions in this scene then says “You got to take everything the white man says and use it against him.” Of course, Malcolm X would go on to speak on a great deal of injustices for African Americans, however despite all of this, the dictionary definition of white still says ‘of the colour of pure snow, of the margins of this page, etc.; reflecting nearly all the rays of the sunlight or a similar light.’.

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Low quality image, but this is from the dictionary scene in Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992)

This may seem unimportant, but it only goes to prove that whilst racism seems to becoming less of an issue to an outsiders perspective, nothing has changed. So many people seem convinced that we are taking steps forward and gradually digging away at the foundations of one of humanity’s most ridiculous issues, and yet, nothing really changes. And so we come to When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s 2019 miniseries following the infamous Central Park 5, a group of five teenagers – Kevin Richardson, at the time 14, Raymond Santana, at the time 14, Antron McCray, at the time 15, Yusef Salaam, at the time 15 and Korey Wise, at the time 16 – who were wrongfully accused, and consequently found guilty of the rape of Trisha Meili, a 28 year old white woman. As is mentioned by the detectives on the case, and made clear by the direction and influence over tone, the fact that this is a case pitting five African American teenagers who were ‘wilding’ through Central Park against a young, middle class white woman is essential to the outcome of the case, and the consequent choosing of a judge who specifically sides with the state more often than not is equally important to the outcome of the story here. I know that this is a lot of factual evidence on the case up to this point and little discussion of the film, but it’ll be important later on. 

The Central Park 5 were incarcerated for between six and fourteen years of their lives. Korey served the most time, being the last one to be released from prison after having served almost a decade and a half for a crime he never committed, and ironically, he was never on the list of suspects to begin with – he was simply accompanying a friend of his (Yusef Salaam) to the police station, because it seemed like the right thing to do. After being beaten by an officer, Wise taped a faked, coerced confession to the rape and, also having been forced to, explained that the four other teenagers were involved. The detectives coerced similar stories from all of the other teenagers first, telling them that if they only said what they were told to that they would be allowed to go home, with the detectives even threatening some of the parents of the teenagers with losing their jobs. In other words, those six to fourteen years were entirely wasted because of the police and because of the failings of the legal system.

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A picture of the Central Park 5 at a premiere of When They See Us.

To go further, the trauma that these boys were subjected to, especially Korey Wise who was placed in an adult prison as opposed to a Juvenile Detention Centre despite the fact that he was only a few months within eligibility and beaten, threatened, stabbed, intimated (rape is also suggested, though never clearly shown, I won’t speculate but I will say that it is implied by DuVernay here), etc., also took away dramatically from their lives, and having the label of rapist, the label of sex offender, of brutaliser, is also excessively damaging in terms of reputation, in terms of finding a job for the convicted after release and in terms of simply trying to live their lives after their releases. 

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DuVernay tells this story with extreme patience. The five hour runtime gives her more than enough time to introduce each and every character and plenty of time to tell each off their stories brilliantly. The direction is stunning, and DuVernay shows extreme control over the tone she suggests through what she is showing from start to finish, even if sometimes it does slightly cross the boarder, especially with one female detective who seems borderline cartoonish in the second episode with how hell bent she is to have these boys incarcerated for a crime that she knows for a fact they didn’t really commit (this was my only real issue with the show). The first episode covers the night of the event and the subsequent interrogation, making it clear from the very beginning that this is clearly a political arrest and that these teenagers have clearly been used as scapegoats during a time of growing racial prejudice and high rape counts in New York City, the second follows the court case, and the third and fourth follow the group navigating their way through prison (and some of them upon release trying to find their way back into a world that has discarded them entirely). 

My gripes as far as the form goes are minimal – some of the lighting looked outright bad, but that’s about it as far as the technical side of things go – the series is far more focused on the power of the story it is telling, and thus the focus is on the performances, and thankfully this has far and away the best ensemble cast of the year with every actor bringing mesmerisingly believable and grounded performances to the table, whether it be the leading group of teenagers and men or the supporting cast, though I give a special mention to Jharrel Jerome who gives the best performance of the entire year so far (alongside Stephen Graham in The Virtues) as Korey Wise, perfectly portraying the vulnerability of the situation as well as the gradual loss over reality experienced due to his trauma – it does help that his story is also the most hard hitting, admittedly. 

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The cinematography from start to finish is gorgeous, lots of use of negative space and central framing which gives it a very isolated, hopeless look that complements the story in an unexpectedly poetic and beautiful way, some of the editing (especially in these sequences of fantasy, and in many of the transitions) is absolutely stunning and works to really envelop the audience in the world of these men. The performances, as aforementioned, are all just ridiculously good, especially considering the age of much of the cast. It’s really an impressive film in terms of form, and the story deserves it. 

Though we may not see a Spike Lee film this year, this is as close as we’ll get (It even has a nod to Do The Right Thing with the 1989 setting and one of the characters blasting Fight The Power on a Boombox reminiscent of Radio Raheem’s, it’s fitting that this also ends as a story of love overcoming hate in the very same way as the story Radio Raheem tells in Spike Lee’s classic). DuVernay directs with such clear direction and vision this story of great injustice, and I can safely say I haven’t been more aggressively frustrated by the injustice and inequality and the prejudice shown in a film since When The Levees Broke in 2006. It says a lot about the quality of media coming out this year that this is only my third favourite cinematic event so far, and it is one hell of a work. Absolutely essential viewing, for its story alone – the gorgeous form is just an added bonus.

I’ll add a brief note on the follow up Oprah interview. I thought that interviewing the cast and crew was really just something done because they brought the Central Park 5 back into the spotlight to be honest, but when Oprah does eventually get around to speaking to them, it’s very interesting. Korey Wise seemed completely off in the interview, unable to focus or stay serious strangely, and there were some poignant moments within the interview (mostly from Antron McCray), but it isn’t necessary to enjoying the show. I’d recommend it to those who really loved the miniseries, but anybody else can feel safe in skipping over it. 

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A shot from the Oprah Interview with the Central Park 5

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