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Film Review — Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us”

Director: Ava Duveray

Format: Mini Series – 4 Episodes (60 Minutes)

Streaming: Netflix

Ava Duvernay’s “When They See Us” tells the story of the Central Park Five. In 1989, a heinous crime shook New York City to its core. A white banker who would become known in the media as the “Central Park Jogger”, was raped and beaten almost to death during an evening jog in central park. Falsely accused,  Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray, kids ages 14, 15, and 16, who were wrongfully convicted Despite no DNA evidence, fingerprints, blood, or semen linking any of the boys to the crime, would grow up grew up in prison, each one spending between six and 13 years behind bars before the real perpetrator was found. Their lives are the basis for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries.

If you’ve never seen the documentary by Ken and Sarah Burns, or if by some chance you don’t know this American horror story, this may be the opportunity for you to see it through a new lens.

The film is flagged by an outstanding ensemble cast, but the young actors especially did an incredible job (Most notably, young actor Jharrel Jerome as gentle, scared, confused, but yet strong Korey Wise).

Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise

The miniseries does an amazing job of showing the kids as typical teenagers with normal lives. This is exactly what they were before they were wrongly accused. New York in the 80’s was crazy. Especially at night in Central Park. The aftermath tho, and it’s painful comparisons, parallels how black children are treated to this very day. Its UNCANNY. It seems like not much has changed.

The whole series is well done, but the second episode in particular was especially captivating. It very clearly showed how public opinion, and the justice system turned against the five youths. It makes it clear that the arrests and the events following never should have happened at all. (If you are at all uncertain, please watch the documentary “The Central Park Five“) The main facts? These kids barely knew one another. Their “confessions” (coerced by cops using brutal tactics on underaged teens) were inconsistent with one another. DNA found near the scene did not match ANY of the boys. Didn’t matter. The brutal fact: A white woman had been brutalized, and America wanted blood. We see the media really sink their hooks into the circus surrounding the accusation of this crime.

“Animals”

“Thugs”

“Fits the description”

The lyrics and beats the media took almost exactly mirror the rhetoric that we see today when black children are shown as criminals. 15 year old boys get their faces slammed into the ground for standing around and Dylan Roof walks into a church, massacres 9 elderly adults after pretending to be their friend, and he’s offered burger king and a helicopter ride.

It’s also mind-boggling to go back again and see Trump taking ads out in the paper advocating for the death penalty for these kids. His winking and nudging of white supremacists of recent news seem familiar to you? It should be. As the case was headed to trial, then-real estate developer  Donald Trump spent about $85,000 placing a full-page ad in four newspapers, calling for the young boys accused of the crime to be executed.

“BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them … I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.”

Donald Trump

Sound familiar? Make America Great Again?

In addition, his insane tv interview proclaiming that he understood the mind of “a black” in America:

“A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market. And, I think, sometimes a black may think that they don’t really have the advantage or this or that but in actuality today, currently, it’s, uh, it’s a, it’s a great. I’ve said on occasion, even about myself, if I were starting off today I would love to be a well-educated black because I really believe they do have an actual advantage today.”

Donald Trump

When They See Us is primarily focused on the racist logic of NYC policing, court, and prison systems that cost the five defendants their childhood and humanity. As masterful storyteller Ava DuVernay has done this before. She wants to make sure that we really see the Central Park Five this time. And we do, Ava. We really do.

The film masterfully sheds light on the inherent problems in American criminal justice system, the perspective of the families involved, as well as from others working in the law. Viewers get an intimate glimpse of mothers, fathers, and siblings fighting for the freedom of their loved ones; law-enforcement authorities classifying these same boys as “animals”. Again, to us it’s all too familiar.

You typically watch films like this to gain a better understanding of the past so that we can avoid a bleak future. But given the current direction of our country and leadership, its evident that the same mistakes and injustices are being repeated ad nauseam with no real solutions or progress.

The question is and always has been, “What do they see when they see us?”

Judging how things have played out since the late 80s…not much.

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