The 2012 Central Park Five documentary by Ken Burns, David McMahon, and Sarah Burns serves as a kind of outline for director Ava DuVernay to masterfully and unsparingly recreate for When They See Us, her 2019 four-part Netflix Original Limited Series, the 1989 New York City whose cultural, racial, economical, and social forces disrupted and permanently altered the lives of five African American and Puerto Rican teenage boys, ranging in age from 14-16, by convicting them of a widely-publicized crime that they did not commit: Raymond Santana Jr., Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray; and Korey Wise.
Their presumed victim, dubbed the Central Park jogger, a 28-year-old white female investment banker later identified as Trisha Meili, had been severely beaten and raped on the night of April 19, 1989, and left for dead; she lay in a coma for weeks once she was found in the brush early the next morning, hovering between life and death. The crime scene always suggested a single assailant and the DNA evidence always ruled all five boys out, but all five were convicted on the strength of videotaped and signed written confessions made after they’d spent hour after hour after hour at the police station with investigators yelling in their faces and refusing to let them eat or drink or sleep or have their parents or legal counsel present during questioning. The city of Chicago has been called the false confession capital of the world, thanks to Commander Jon Burge and his descendant generations of torturous lieutenants, but with this case’s police and prosecutors, the city of New York fell into a very dangerous second.
Away from all the overheated commentary and racist fear-mongering, then and now, especially from those still insisting the five are guilty despite their exoneration when the actual rapist, Matias Reyes, gave of his own free will a highly-detailed confession that only the crime’s assailant could have given, When They See Us tells us the story from the boys’ point of view.
The first two parts show the case’s impact on each boy and his closest family members — with some of those wrestling with their own misplaced guilt in the boys ending up on trial — from coercion to conviction. The third part shows the case’s impact on the four younger men upon their juvenile release seven years later, with their youth lost behind bars and a desperate adulthood ahead as convicted felons and registered sex offenders.
The fourth part, the longest, hones in on the life of the oldest boy, Korey Wise, whose age dooms him to the infamous adult facility at Rikers Island and nearly twice as much time in prison. While the four younger boys have two sets of actors, one playing them as children and the other playing them as adults, Wise’s portrayer is the same actor throughout, convincingly heartbreaking as both the naïve teen who was only trying to help his friend, to the young man who endures all the worst the modern American correctional system has to offer, for 13 years straight in various maximum security facilities across the country, managing to cheat death in the abusive general populations and cheat madness in the solitary confinements.
Many familiar faces from film, television, and theater appear in this production and you’re sure to recognize someone, whether it’s the actor from Dawson’s Creek or the one from Hamilton, or the actress from Desperate Housewives or the one from A Wrinkle in Time. But at no point are they less than believable in the roles they play here. DuVernay and her writers, editors, and production crew go all in, and the performers do the same.
Overall, When They See Us also works as an addendum to DuVernay’s 13th, as a deeply detailed visual dissertation on the mass incarceration of black and brown men, and on the ways that imprisonment remains even after release. Keeping convicted felons away from various job paths – including licensed trades they may have studied in prison – and from applying for federal assistance and affordable housing leaves them few legitimate employment options and increases the probability of their engaging in activities that will return them to prison cells.
The story continues! See the When They See Us Wakelet widget with links to video interviews with director Ava DuVernay and various actors of When They See Us as well as video interviews with The Exonerated Five: https://wke.lt/w/s/Uw5CYe