The new Netflix series When they See Us presents a devastating indictment of the criminal justice system. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the four-part series focuses on the Central Park 5: the group of teenagers who were wrongly tried and convicted of a Central Park rape in 1989. At the time, the case made nationwide headlines with real estate magnate Donald Trump weighing in long before he entered the political realm.
Instead of making the series about the national headlines though, DuVernay focuses her unflinching camera on the personal lives that were forever changed because of this case.
The first episode focuses on the crime itself and the arrests of five young men who ranged in age from 14 to 16. Anton McCray (Caleel Harris), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk) and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome) are all taken into custody after Trisha Meili, a banker in her late 20s, was raped and left for dead in Central Park. Each of the boys then faces an intense interrogation about the case.
DuVarney paints a devastating portrait of those interrogations and the lengths that prosecutors are sometimes willing to go to force the facts to fit into their narrative. That narrative — a convoluted mess that never quite added up — helps set the stage for their eventual prosecution, which occurs in the second episode.
In these early episodes, the boys are portrayed by young men and the actors themselves do a tremendous job capturing the confusion and the chaos that they faced.
The third episode focuses on four of the boys growing up in the prison system and their complicated transition to normal life. This episode lacks the flaw of the previous two episodes and likely for good reason. Whereas the first two episodes focus on the boys going through similar ordeals — the arrests, the interrogations and the trial — each of the boys has a different experience facing the outside world.
What DuVernay captures so painfully though is the realization that a person’s sentence for committing a crime isn’t isolated. A prison sentence can brand a person in their own communities and in society as a whole. Each of these four young adults face that harsh reality. From friends and neighbors treating them differently to job applications that ask about prior convictions, there’s a stigma associated with convictions that undermines their abilities to live normal lives outside of prison.
The first half of the last episode focuses on Korey, who served the largest sentence of the five. The incredible Jharrel Jerome, the only actor who plays the character both as a young adult and as an adult, carries the burden of showing what Korey went through in the harsh, unrelenting prison system. The latter half of the final episode focuses on the final resolution of the case (which occurred thirteen years after the crime itself).
DuVernay has long been interested in the criminal justice system (her documentary 13 explored it in more detail) but here, she’s able to show the effects of the system on a specific group of teenagers who were pushed into the system at a young age.
In this series, she often focuses the camera intently on specific individuals, letting the background become a blur. In this way, she creates a powerful personal connection between the subjects on the screen and the audience itself.
When They See Us undeniably has a point of view (some real-life participants of the case have decried major elements of it). However, such criticism shouldn’t undermine the power and prestige of this production. The series offers a raw, absorbing and ultimately revealing look at this compelling case and the flawed criminal justice system.
When they See Us is now streaming on Netflix.