Series Review: 'When They See Us'
Ava DuVernay makes the story of the Central Park Five hard to watch... and ultimately necessary.
So... when I saw this dramatic re-telling of the ordeal of the Central Park 5 being advertised on Netflix, I was already pretty sure that it was going to be must-watch television. I was also extremely apprehensive about seeing the events through the eyes of these five kids (now grown men) and being able to emotionally process it all. The case (and the legal and societal issues it brings to the forefront) kind of hits close to home for me as a parent, and as an African-American man. I'd seen the Ken Burns documentary on the Central Park 5 a while back, so I was already very familiar with the case, and some of the very problematic issues it brought to the table for the American public to address. Systemic racism, classism, and lack of accountability for law enforcement and agents of the legal system were all things that were at the forefront of the documentary. Ava Duvernay did an excellent job of showing the social and personal toll this case had on these men and their families, as well as the greater impact that the institutions of the law and media played in that accrued trauma. Every episode of this mini-series was visceral and traumatic. Whether it was the very public shunning of Yusuf Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana upon their release from custody as adults, to the entire fourth episode being devoted to the ordeal of Korey Wise's experiences at Riker's Island as an adult, the entire progression of the series takes a huge emotional toll on the audience watching it.
The entire experience for the viewer is like a sharp object being poked in your side, which is EXACTLY why the presentation of this series was so brilliant. This kind of trauma is what individuals and their families go through when false accusations happen. More so, the mark of being accused of such a crime never really goes away for both the accused and for the general public that's left to contemplate WHY institutions that are tasked with dispensing justice in an equitable way, simply aren't. At the time of this review, Linda Fairstein, lead prosecutor on the case, has predictably started to encounter backlash since the release of the series on Netflix. She's recently offered a rebuttal to the depiction via an Op-Ed through the Wall Street Journal, accusing Ava DuVernay's production of being "misleading" and "defaming" her. The series did the important job of bringing the underlying issues that have habitually plagued both law enforcement and the punitive legal system to the forefront for today's public to examine.It was an uncomfortable experience watching the series, but it was a necessary one, particularly for an American public that's increasingly calling for more accountability for the people that are ultimately responsible the fair and equal dispensing of justice under the law. The fourth episode, in particular, was just plain painful to watch. Korey Wise's progression through the jail sentence imposed on him was a stark reminder of how the cracks in the legal system really manifest themselves in truly tragic ways. Additionally, the depiction of the process law enforcement took to eventually break down the five children after getting them in custody was particularly effective for audiences watching it. Sleep deprivation and the conducting of interrogation in the absence of parents or legal representation was a pretty consistent and prominent theme throughout the show. Whether fair or not, the NYPD and the Sex Crimes DA that put together and prosecuted this case were depicted as cold and driven to obtain a result for a high profile case, no matter what the methods or cost. There's a scene in the fourth episode of the series where Assistant District Attorney Nancy Ryan (portrayed by Famke Jannsen) and Linda Fairstein (portrayed by Felicity Huffman) are sitting across from each other in a dining setting soon after the original verdict was tossed out and the five exonerated. Ryan takes out a number of novels that Fairstein wrote in her subsequent career as an author and makes the point that during the time these novels were written and sold for profit, five innocent boys served time for a vicious crime that they didn't commit. Fairstein's character was unapologetic, and utterly convinced that the methods taken during the case were justified by the ends. It's one of the coldest moments of the series, and it's a window into just how polarized, cynical, and myopic the view was regarding the case at the time. Ultimately, the City of New York and the state settled with the Central Park 5 for over 41 million dollars in restitution for wrongful imprisonment. Ultimately, Ava DuVernay took one of the more shameful legal episodes in American jurisprudence and put a very relatable, human face to the ultimate costs that wrongful convictions take. It's a masterpiece of painful reality, and it's a show that I would encourage every family to sit down and watch together, regardless of the difficulty.