Leave it to Ava DuVernay to find that one sliver of hope in the heartwrenching story of the Central Park 5 and use it to pull viewers of When They See Us through the arrests, interrogation, trial, imprisonment, and release of the five men at the center of this story. It’s that thread of hope that I steadfastly clung to through the riveting, maddening, infuriating, and helpless experience of watching When They See Us. I sat down to watch the series late last night, expecting only to watch the first episode before going to sleep, but DuVernay paints such a vivid, sympathetic, and human portrait of these young men — Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise — that I couldn’t bring myself to turn it off until the wee hours of the morning, after I’d seen them through the worst of it and freed of their convictions.
The rough contours of the story are familiar to most. On the night of April 19, 1989, 29-year-old Trisha Meili was violently beaten, raped, and left for dead while jogging through Central Park. The beating was so bad, the injuries so severe, and the woman so white that the public went into the kind of rabid meltdown that demanded the kind of justice that would ultimately create five more victims.
Five young men who were seen in Central Park that night — ranging from the ages of 14 to 16 — were arrested and brought in for hours and hours of grueling questioning, in some cases without a parent present (and in all cases without a lawyer present). The prosecutor Linda Fairstein (played villainously by Felicity Huffman) was so hellbent on pinning the crime on these five boys that she directed the police to coerce false confessions out of them. None of the confessions made a lick of damn sense, but no matter: Fairstein essentially reshaped the facts to align with their contradictory confessions, reality be damned.
The men — who didn’t have the kind of money necessary to mount a decent defense — were ultimately convicted of being Black in the wrong place at the wrong time. They served from four to thirteen years in prison for a crime they did not commit.
The facts of the case, however, barely tell the story of the Central Park 5, but DuVernay deftly brings it to stomach-churning life. We see what kind of kids they were before they were arrested. We get to know their families, and the struggles they suffered before, during, and after the trials and imprisonments. We witness five men come of age inside of prison. We see Korey Wise suffer for years in solitary confinement, a place he opted to go rather than face more beatings from prisoners and guards who singled him out because of the high-profile nature of the case.
It’s excruciating to watch as the lives of these men — and their families — are destroyed by a legal system interested not in justice but in convictions. There are times when you want to throw the television through the wall. There are other times where you want to violently berate Linda Fairstein and the detectives. But there are also other moments where all you want to do is hug these men and whisper to your televisions, “Just hang in there. One day your convictions will be vacated.” It’s hard not to feel completely helpless in the face of so much deliberately egregious injustice.
But that thread of hope also makes it impossible to turn away. We see the Black community in Harlem come out for these men. We see their flawed parents stick by them no matter what. And we see these men struggle so very hard to climb over the 50-foot fall the system has erected in front of them in order to salvage what little life is left to them after the “wheels of justice” have chewed them up and spit them out. The very occasional act of kindness goes a long way, too, as do the minor victories these men experience along the way, which give them enough reason to live, fight, and struggle for one more day.
And yet, in the end, it’s hard to know what lesson to take away from When They See Us because so very little has changed in the three decades since Trisha Meili was raped by Matias Reyes in Central Park. It feels almost hopeless, especially knowing that the convictions weren’t vacated because the District Attorney’s office recognized a wrong and tried to correct it, but because another man finally confessed. To think: It was not the prosecutors or detectives, but a violent serial rapist who had the come-to-Jesus moment that eventually freed these men of their convictions.
It’s hard to come away from When They See Us with any thought other than the justice system is irretrievably broken and that the fight against systemic racism is a fruitless one. And yet, inherent in that thread of hope that DuVernay so successfully weaves through the miniseries is an inspired call to action, a plea to keep fighting the good fight because every great once in a while, you get a glimpse of the sun while struggling to climb out of the neverending avalanche of sh*t. What happened to the Central Park 5 — and the contributions of so many, including Donald Trump, to make it happen — is wrong on so many fundamental levels, but there is something to be said for the indomitable human spirit of the five men who somehow managed to survive it and for Ava DuVernay, who so beautifully and achingly brought their story to life. If we are going to effectuate real change, When They See Us should be required viewing in every high school, every police precinct, and every district attorney’s office in America.
When They See Us is currently airing on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix