Updated: Apr 6, 2021
The year is 1989, the place is Harlem. The streets are popping with light and life. The stereo blasts Special Ed’s “I Got It Made”. Groups of friends laugh in the streets as they head toward Central Park. In an instant, the happy premise is twisted into a violent nightmare as police are called and terrorize these young colored boys as they try to outrun them. The next day, when Linda Fairstein, the head of the Sex Crimes unit of the NYC District Attorney’s office, learns a woman had been brutally raped in the park the night before, she says without a doubt she suspects the boys were guilty. After surmising a story from little to no evidence, she chooses to pin this case on four Black boys and one Hispanic boy. Episode One showcases the brutal interrogations and manipulations these boys experienced in order for them to falsely confess to the crime. Despite signs of obvious coercion, inconsistencies in their stories, and lack of physical evidence, the boys are all convicted, the sentences ranging from 5-10 years and 10-15 years in prison.
Ava DuVernay crafts a beautiful narrative and condenses the complicated story of these boys into four succinct episodes. Despite the brevity of the docuseries, the story is not rushed, but rather feels as though every moment counts. The care put into every camera shot and the intention behind every word nails the wild range of emotions one can imagine was felt from the moment the boys entered the park to the moment they walked out of prison years later.
Throughout the episodes, DuVernay establishes the racism inherent in the justice system and exploitations of race in politics and the media. She gives commentary on the status of Donald Trump who spent $85,000 on a newspaper ad insisting the death penalty be reinstated for the boys. The entire series is one that is hard to watch, heartbreaking to bear, but absolutely necessary to consume as it is the unspoken reality of many.
“When They See Us”. The word ‘us’ strips away the title of ‘Central Park Five’, suddenly they are just everyday boys. They are us. There are more out there, suffering the same fate as Korey Wise, who only got caught up in the nightmare because he did not want to leave his friend, Yusef Salaam, alone. There are more suffering at the hands of the racist justice system. DuVernay not only wants to tell the story of the Central Park Five, but she wants to make people listen and pay attention to the stories that have not been told, to alert us to the true evil that sent these boys to prison in the first place.