When They See Us
‘When They See Us’ illustrates how ironically and starkly unjust the American criminal justice system can be, by telling the stories of five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of the rape of Trisha Meili in 1990. Ava DuVernay wrote and directed this miniseries for Netflix. ‘When They See Us’ gives the viewer a front-row seat to the nightmare that Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, commonly dubbed the ‘Central Park Five’, experienced when they were each stripped of between six and 13 years of their lives. The five teenagers’ younger selves are portrayed by Caleel Harris, Asante Blackk, Ethan Herisse, Marquis Rodriguez and Jharrel Jerome respectively.
Execution of the plot (9/10)
This is a story about the criminalisation and policing of black and brown skin that has been, and still is, deeply embedded in society. The racial prejudice against the skin colours belonging to the ‘Innocent Five’, as DuVernay called them in a recent tweet, robs these five teenagers, and young black and Latino children across society, of their childhoods. This prejudice fastens the concept of ‘purity’ to whiteness, leading to these abhorrent consequences where black and brown skinned individuals fall victim to the criminal justice system, which brands them as criminals, thugs and animals. In ‘When They See Us’, Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor who was instrumental in landing the conviction, and who is portrayed by Felicity Huffman, refers to the boys using such negative language frequently and menacingly. While Fairstein claims that her portrayal was untrue, regardless of whether or not she used this language, these words have been metaphorically painted onto black and brown skin for decades in society, and this enforces a dangerous, unilateral narrative onto black and Latino members of society. Through the carefully employed language in the dialogue, DuVernay accurately represents the racial prejudice against black and Latino members of the population that plagues the justice system, in ‘When They See Us’. The vocabulary used to describe the black and Latino teenagers rounded up by the police suddenly changes from ‘witness’ to ‘suspect’, once the prosecutors realise they can do whatever they want with these teenagers to ‘solve’ this case. One of the interrogators even refers to the chance to question one of the boys without his mother present as ‘Christmas’. The negative, stereotypical language used in the justice system that ‘When They See Us’ washes away the uniqueness and humanity of each brown or black face that falls victim to the system, making each of these individual, innocent teenagers simply another drop in an endless sea of convictions. The thoughtful depiction of these teenagers doing various typical teenage activities such as sharing a meal with a parent, attending a music lesson, and hanging out with a girl shatters the false narrative that these were ‘little thugs’, not boys. This reinforces the teenagers’ rightful identities by showing them take pleasure in these activities, unsuspecting of the gross injustice around the corner. Thus, ‘When They See Us’ distances the teenagers from the crimes they were wrongfully convicted of, illustrating how far they were from their portrayal in the media as monsters who, according to Donald Trump, deserved the death penalty; this successfully highlights to the viewer just how ghastly and inconceivable the smearing of these teenagers’ reputations and lives with egregious lies was.
‘When They See Us’ also successfully emphasises how ridiculous the prosecution process was by presenting the shocking, revolting manner in which the boys and their parents were treated by the detectives and prosecutors. The miniseries shows the extent to which the boys had nothing to do with the crimes by laying down the facts of the crime, emphasising the discrepancies between the details of the rape and the locations of the boys, to highlight to the viewer just how unfeasible it would have been for them to have committed the crimes they were convicted of. It is remarkably ironic how the only guilty people in the interrogation rooms were the interrogators themselves. At each stage, the series underscores how ludicrous the guilty verdict was, especially given that the only evidence admissible in court was the interview tapes of the five boys, which, as ‘When They See Us’ skillfully and grippingly illustrates, were the result of coercion, manipulation, and haphazard concoction.
‘When They See Us’ educates the viewer about the numerous negative externalities that afflict those in the system, their futures, and their families. The miniseries subtly informs the viewer about the considerable cost to families of phoning and visiting an inmate or sending commissary money, and the difficulties of finding a job and building relationships post-jail. ‘When They See Us’ also emphasises the emotional turmoil family members undergo by reflecting the guilt some family members felt for their unintentionally unhelpful advice during the process. The viewer also witnesses this tragedy ripping apart the families of the wrongfully convicted boys, in some cases due to dissent over family members’ conflicting opinions regarding the boys’ innocence.
The actors mirror the true events and represent the individuals involved with incredible, impressive accuracy. As viewers, our ability to watch the original tapes from the trial enables us to fully appreciate how talented the cast is. Each actor elicits an emotional response from the viewer by carrying out their role with great technicality and passion. An especially notable mention is Jharrel Jerome, who executed the roles of both the younger and older Korey Wise with versatility and skill. It is evident that each of the five actors playing the wrongfully convicted teenagers paid ample attention to detail, as they effortlessly present the mannerisms one would expect from teenagers struck with such a nightmare. From the young boys quaking with fear, to the harsh and menacing reactions from the prosecutors, to the protesters, every role was executed with finesse, making ‘When They See Us’ feel realistic, and leaving a lasting impression on the viewer.
Overall, ‘When They See Us’ is a must see for everybody. The underlying theme in this miniseries that the justice system sometimes fails black and Latino youth and we have a duty to play our part to fight for them, is an important lesson for every member of society. The calm after the storm in this story, with the positivity conveyed at the end, is a breath of fresh air considering the numerous cases where no element of justice is ever restored. DuVernay told this story with passion and care, and watching it was an awe-in.
Written by Emike Ahmed (Twitter & IG @EmikeAh).