'When They See Us' - TV show review
Over the past week I debated watching the Netflix show When They See Us. It portrays one of the most famous cases of injustice in the US criminal legal system. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the miniseries depicts the teenagers Kharey Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray, known as the Central Park Five, in the case of the assault and rape of twenty-eight year old Trisha Meili in Central Park 1989.
Although the series premiered on Netflix to great critical acclaim, I intentionally avoided the miniseries for several reasons. In a period in which traumatic events appear to be trending, especially those concerning black people in America, I have become drained by exposure to the degradation and deaths of people of colour. Seeing the images and effects of police brutality through live streaming on Twitter or Facebook may cause some to become desensitised to the reality of these events. For me, a live stream deepens the depressing reality and causes outrage, and a sense of helplessness. I felt the series would stir the same emotions inside of me so I made the decision to not watch and instead read about the case. This was before a friend recently told me to watch it, even though we had both discussed how the show would make us feel. She reassured me that it was necessary viewing.
Therefore, with nothing to do on my Friday afternoon I sat down and loaded the first episode. As I watched, the same distressing emotions I predicted I would feel, emerged. I observed how the black and Hispanic boys, aged from fourteen to sixteen, were arrested, manipulated and coerced by the police into admitting to the assault and rape of jogger Trisha Meili. It was a crime of which they were innocent. The police and prosecutor Linda Fairstein purposely disregarded the fact that none of the boys knew anything about each other or the assault on Meili until they were interrogated by the police. Fairstein pushed this discriminatory narrative that the assault must have been caused by the group of boys arrested as she claimed they were “animals” on a “rampage”. The prosecution attempted to manipulate evidence to point to the boys presumed guilt.
This initiated the investigation of those five teenagers who were subsequently wrongfully sentenced to six to thirteen years in prison for a crime they did not commit. One of the most distressing elements of the case was the story of Kharey Wise, a teenager who was not on the police’s list of suspects for the case but was arrested after accompanying his friend Yusef Salaam to the police station. At the age of 16 being the oldest of the group Kharey was sentenced as an adult as opposed to the juvenile system used for the others.
We learn in the concluding credits of the series that the men received $41 million in their legal battle to overturn their convictions. However, after taking time to understand the immense depth of the case you have to question if those men can ever be compensated for the loss of their humanity, youth and worth as individuals. During their time spent in prison and even after their release they were branded as criminals and rapists, as felons and untrustworthy all due to the corruption within the criminal justice system. Just as the compensation may be considered inadequate, even though I know the convictions were overturned, I still feel disheartened for the nightmare they experienced, the wasted years of their lives and subsequent hardships post prison. Films depict fictional stories like this but this is all the more disturbing because you are aware it is a real life event.
For me personally, the series was incredibly hard to watch. However, it was necessary to view in order to fully understand how these men suffered. I am acutely aware that my discomfort is nothing compared to the actual ordeal which they suffered. Ava DuVernay responded to those who were discouraged to watch the series stating it would be like “running away from our history, running away from the realities of what so many of our brothers and sisters are going through”. As you are watching you are reminded that this is history and a critical part of the series is to highlight that this history should not be repeated.
I believe that it is necessary to emphasise the damaging nature of wrongful convictions in their entirety. From the moment the boys were arrested there was a racially driven narrative following their story. It is shocking how easy it was to convince people that these boys must be guilty so much so that there were still some who doubted their innocence after the convictions were reversed. The fact that no other individuals were considered, that evidence was distorted to point to them, that the boys were illegally interrogated, with police brutality, and without a guardian present. During this whole process their lives were destroyed. It is important to remember that cases of wrongful conviction still occur even now and this series draws our attention to what can happen in extreme circumstances.
If, like me, you feel that you cannot watch this show I strongly encourage you to try. Ava DuVernay has accomplished an amazing feat in portraying the Central Park Five case that encapsulates the exceedingly harrowing nature of the events that took place in 1989.