Ava DuVernay uses real history to damn the present in Netflix’s When They See Us

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Donald Trump took out a full page ad in four New York newspapers calling for the execution of these innocent young men

Vox - June 2, 2019

In March, Netflix announced that the name of Ava DuVernay’s forthcoming limited series about an infamous 1989 rape case and its racially charged aftermath would be changed from Central Park Five (as the group of young men accused of the crime are commonly called) to When They See Us. Now that the series is here, it’s clear why.

When They See Us (which premiered on Netflix on May 31) richly understands that in America — a country that makes sense of itself through images on screens — who you appear to be matters far more than who you actually are.

The “us” of the title is the five young teens (four African-American, one Hispanic) with whom the story is chiefly concerned, who came to be known as the Central Park Five: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. (Ken Burns made a well-crafted documentary about them in 2012; they were also the focus of one of Joan Didion’s most famous essays, published in 1991.) They were between the ages of 14 and 16 in 1989, when they were accused, coerced into confessing, and convicted of beating and raping a woman jogging in Central Park.

The series is in four parts, each running between 60 and 90 minutes and covering some aspect of the larger story. The first episode is concerned with the forced confessions; the second covers the trial. Episode three follows the four members of the group who served time in the juvenile system (as they were under 16 when convicted) and the struggles they encountered when they tried to return to normal life. The fourth explores the experience of the fifth, who was 16 and convicted as an adult, and the circumstances that led to the convictions being vacated in 2002.

The whole series is great, but the second episode was particularly arresting. I was taken with how clearly it shows why public opinion, and the justice system, turned against the five for so long. And in so doing, it makes it clear that the arrests and the events following never should have happened. The boys barely knew one another; their confessions were inconsistent with one another, and in some cases, even their individual testimonies would change; DNA in semen found on a sock near the scene did not match any of the defendants. No matter: A white woman had been brutalized, and America demanded someone to punish.

And in this case, perhaps unsurprisingly to today’s viewer, America was crystallized in the form of ... Donald Trump. ...
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