Title: When They See Us || Director: Ava DuVernay || Genre: Drama || Network: Netflix || Premiere Date: 30 May 2019 ||Total Duration: 4 hours & 56 min. || Format: Limited Series
I watched Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us!!…And although my heart is still bleeding it was worth every excruciating second.
This limited series is the depiction of the 1989 case involving “The Central Park Five,” in which five black and Latino teens were convicted of raping a Central Park jogger.
The reason for my overconfidence when I stepped into this viewing experience is the same reason I still haven’t mustered up the courage to watch the Kalief Browder story… I know how these stories end.
But let’s start at the very beginning. When I heard Ava DuVernay was working on this series (she tweeted this about a year ago)… the only thing that came to mind is WHY?! To my recollection this story was major news. Oprah did an interview with the victim (here), Donald Trump got involved in a not so good way (here) …plus there are a gazillion video’s of the Central Park Five available on youtube in which they let us know how this sh*t impacted their lives. But please don’t take my word for it, just go ahead and type Central Park Five in your YouTube search bar.
Fast forward to now… it’s needless to say that I stand corrected. At first I was astonished at how many people were not aware that this even happened. But then it dawned on me that it was probably short-sightedness that not only made me forget that most of this occurred before the internet, but I somehow also dismissed a whole generation of adult Netflix watchers that weren’t even born in 1989. Note to self… I really need to step out of my bubble.
It never came into question whether or not I was going to watch. My reasoning was that if these men could live it, I should be able to watch it. However I did take into account that Ava Duvernay created this and if you’ve seen 13th or even one episode of Queen Sugar you’d know to distance yourself from whatever narrative you are about to receive. But alas I underestimated the level of preventive measures one needed to take in order to shelter one’s heart. Since I hold Ava Duvernay in very high esteem ( because I skipped a Wrinkle in Time) this really took me by surprise. Seriously, who knew it was possible to up the ante on her level of craftmanship in this short amount of time?
But I digress … Although I was not fully intact by the end of episode 3, my emotional stability was still were it needed to be. Believe it or not … this was an accomplishment, cause by that time you’d seen Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise go through all kinds of injustice and it was very hard not to feel some type of way about all of it. By episode 4 however my mental preparation proofed to be insufficient against the visual spell that Ava DuVernay weaves. Her movie magic draws you in and before you know it your fully immersed and you let your guard down. I started to deeply empathize and live through every second of Korey Wise’s ordeal by episode 4. That episode was brilliantly excuted as well as heart shattering. I was not aware that I had so many tears left to shed. I probably cried the full 128 minutes it took that episode to finish, but more important was that I also refused to look away.
When They See Us will most likely go down as one of the least rewatchable series in Netflix history. This is a damn shame …cause apart from heart-wrenching this limited series is a work of art on every imaginable level. Maybe it’s because I lack the expertise but it’s hard to grasp that this Netflix gem had to be shot within 66 hours. It seems like the ancestors were called upon and they recruited whatever deity of creativity to gather everybody on top of their artistry and summon them to bring their A-game. The chronicling of nearly 3 decades of events to fit the 5 hour script couldn’t have been an easy feat. Everything from the cinematography, to the music, the locations, the acting and even the narrative structure is predominantly black excellence at work. Not one frame appears to be out of place. While it is definitely possible to find something at fault, the story is way too engrossing to waste your time on potential flaws. And of course there is always one standout element that deserves an honorable mention and in this case it’s the marvel that is Jharrel Jerome. If this actor was not on your rader after Berry Jenkins’ Moonlight, he will surely be a household name after you’ve seen his portrayal of Korey Wise. Unfortunately all that is impressive about this series is also what causes this visual experience to register on an almost visceral level in the most uncomfortable way. In other words this depiction is triggering as hell and this is especially relevant if you are a person of color.
Shortly after the series premiere the hashtag #CancelLindaFairstein began trending on twitter and it was clear that the story of the Central Park Five hit a nerve. It also resulted in Linda Fairstein being dropped by her publisher on the 7th of June. Aside from being dropped she resigned from her respective positions on the boards of Vassar College and two nonprofits. Ultimately Glamour magazine also stripped Fairstein of the Woman of the Year Award given to her more than 20 years ago. The following week, on the 12th of June Elizabeth Lederer announced that she would not return as a lecturer at Columbia Law School. This was the same day Netflix US tweeted that When They See Us was the most watched series on Netflix since it’s premiere on the 30th May.
Who would’ve thought that Art imitating Life could be impactful enough to unleash Karma on these former prosecuters. The irony of it all is that a manufactured story blinded the court of public opinion to the innocence of the Central Park Five in 1989, while a fictional series based on true events, made sure the court of public opinion dealt with the truly culpable in 2019. For now it remains unclear how this story will develop, but one thing that is quite obvious is that a change is gonna come.
When They See Us is painful, educational and essential. It’s a horrific account told from the perspective of the now exonerated five and if anything … their collective stories force all of us to finally see them!!