American novelist and civil rights activist James Baldwin said, “You asked my father to wait, my brother to wait, my uncle to wait. How long must I wait on freedom? How long must I wait on rights and equality and liberty?”
Director Ava DuVernay is a modern visionary who gained recognition for her work in the 2010s, most notably Selma and 13th. DuVernay provides a much-needed perspective on race in America, both from a historical standpoint and its contemporary implications.
She challenged our perception of famous civil rights figures and the belief that slavery has truly ended in America, and she continues her analysis of racism and prejudice with her Netflix series ‘When They See Us.’
In 1989, a 28-year-old white female jogger was physically and sexually assaulted, left so badly injured that she was in a coma for 12 days. Police connected the attack to eight related incidents in Central Park, allegedly committed by over 30 teenagers. Out of the 24 people arrested for the attack, five teens of color (four African Americans, one Hispanic American) were indicted and convicted for rape and sexual abuse among other charges. Known as the Central Park Five, all five youths were sentenced from 5 to 15 years in prison until 2002, where they were released after a convicted serial rapist and murderer confessed to the crime.
But that is not where the story ends. ‘When They See Us’ fills in the blanks, creating a picture of one of the worst incidents of police brutality, coercion, and racial profiling in America.
Watch the trailer for ‘When They See Us’ below.
It is hard to narrow down what specifically makes this miniseries works. The acting had a role in it, particularly Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise (the only one of the five charged as an adult). The directing is sharp and unforgiving, showing how reactions at the time mirror the treatment of black and brown people today.
But where ‘When They See Us’ succeeds the most is its unflinching portrayal of what America defines as the good and bad guys.
This is a story where everybody loses. Five young boys were convicted for the crime of being black or Hispanic rather than an assault they committed. The woman did not receive the justice she wanted, as the actual assailant could not be prosecuted. The rapist got away with victimizing her, and neither the prosecutors nor police faced any consequences for their nonethical treatment of the five teens.
‘When They See Us’ exposes a justice system meant to protect and serve each other rather than the people who need it, and it emphasizes the universal aspect of this tragedy, as similar instances of profiling and violence continue to this day.
When I watched ‘Unbelievable,’ I felt that most viewers left understanding why women don’t report their rape. What I hope is that audiences will leave ‘When They See Us’ and understand why people say “black lives matter.”
Because if black lives really mattered, there would not be a need to say it in the first place. If black lives mattered, there would not be an outcry of “all lives matter” in response, and then absolute silence in the face of oppression.
God bless the Exonerated Five.