Netflix’s original series, directed by Ava DuVernay, When They See Us was painful to watch, but it would have been more painful to look away.
I had to let it settle within me. I had to allow every scene of When They See Us to sit uncomfortably in my consciousness and permeate my thoughts, my beliefs, and my perceptions. I needed to make an emotional connection to each young man’s story from various vantage points. I had to try to get past my anger and formulate cohesive thoughts I could use to articulate my true feelings about the production and the director’s ability to tell the truth without sensationalizing it.
I’m still angry. I’m still angry and I don’t want my anger to subside. My anger fuels my passion and desire to elicit change. I’m angry because Ava DuVernay proficiently and expertly brought a well-known story to life and placed the viewer into an immersive experience that was both difficult and uncomfortable. From the opening scenes that added a human element to each young man who made up the infamous “Central Park Five”, to the soundtrack that enhanced the viewer’s voyeuristic journey through the timeline of events, Ms. DuVernay held me emotionally captive and forced me to watch the hideous details surrounding five young boys who were wrongfully convicted and unjustly punished for a crime they didn’t commit.
Social injustice is a reality that is deeply rooted in American culture. I personally choose not to focus on the advancements we’ve made as a country because When They See Us illustrates that nothing has changed for the individual who is impacted by social injustices. I couldn’t help but think of Emmet Till, George Stinney, Jr., and Khalif Browder as I watched the innocence of these young boys, ranging in age from 14 to 16, violently taken from them.
The series is superb. The excellence of When They See Us is its ability to provide vivid imagery of systemic racism, implicit bias, and systematic oppression through unfair imprisonment. Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson were dehumanized from their very first contact with the criminal justice system. They were never viewed as young boys in the formative years of their lives. They were animals, savagely roaming through Central Park in a deadly pack thirsting for blood. The series revealed how law enforcement was deployed, not to investigate a crime and apprehend a criminal, but to hunt down these animals and neutralize a threat that existed only in the imagination of an overzealous district attorney who, to this day, suffers from blinding implicit bias. It also revealed the techniques that law enforcement utilizes to force a crime to fit an established narrative. Without a shred of physical evidence, members of the criminal justice system crafted a story and then coerced (sometimes by force) the teenagers to accept the fallacious story as their truth.
When They See Us illuminates our society’s normalization of the fear some have of black and brown men and women, regardless of age. That fear facilitated and legally sanctioned the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and countless others. That same fear justifies excessive prison terms and unequal application of the law for minorities. Young minorities are not given permission to make youthful mistakes and they are thrown into transformative prisons that produce the violent criminals they were falsely characterized as being. A sobering moment in the series was when the actor portraying Raymond Santana said, “When they say boys will be boys, they’re not talking about us. When do we ever get to be boys?” I couldn’t help but to recall the confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh when he dismissed missteps that occurred during his teenage years with that same idiom, “boys will be boys.”
Rather than focusing on just the events that took place that led to the boys being falsely imprisoned, the series showed the lasting cause and effect relationship of injustice, as well as the apathetic response of those who carried out injustice. The most disturbing aspect of the series, besides the realization that it dramatizes actual events, is the jarring awareness that this story took place in 1989 and stories like it are happening all around America every day.
When They See Us is triggering, but it is also necessary. Provocative stories told in this manner reestablishes the “urgency of now” that Dr. King spoke of during the Civil Rights Movement. Ava DuVarney’s decision to insist that we watch the lives of these boys degrade, scene after painful scene, is reminiscent of the mother of Emmett Till, Mamie Till’s decision to force the world to see her son’s disfigured face and fully accept the consequences and impact of injustice. We should not and can not look away. We owe it to these young men and the thousands of young men like them to watch the series, make our children watch the series, write about the series, discuss the series, and make the series a part of our social lexicon.
When They See Us exposes the nefarious relationship between justice and wealth. We see firsthand how the criminal justice system leaves those without adequate resources mute and impotent. The celebrations pouring out of the black community after a jury acquitted O.J. Simpson was not due to a shared belief in his innocence. O.J. was the first high profile example of a black man using his wealth to manipulate a system that has been notoriously unfair to men of color. For many, this was the first time that the justice system proved that innocence was equally available for purchase by anyone who had the funds to do so.
When They See Us should be required viewing because it forces us to deal with the agonizingly slow pace of change. It also disrupts and destroys our erroneous perception of the past as a time beyond our present reach. Not only are all the young boys depicted in the series alive, well, and relativity young, the attorney who prosecuted the case, Elizabeth Lederer, is still an active prosecutor in the New York district attorney’s office and a professor at Columbia University. The lead district attorney, Linda Fairstein, is not only a bestselling crime novel author, until recently, she was a trustee of Vassar College. Most disturbingly, the man who paid $85,000 for full-page ads in four city newspapers calling for the execution of the wrongly convicted boys is now the 45th President of the United States.
Amongst the many statements made by the four-part series, When They See Us, the most significant is the monumental role that apathy plays in halting and destroying progress. Watch the series… don’t look away, even after the credits roll… don’t look away.