Thirty years ago, five teenagers of color were arrested and charged with raping and beating a white female jogger in Central Park. Prosecutors and reporters tended to refer to them as a single unit after that: a wolf pack, or as they would ultimately become known, the Central Park Five.
When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s sensitively wrought Netflix miniseries about what happened to those boys, strips away the dehumanizing tendency to bunch them together and instead shows what each of them dealt with individually when they were coerced into giving false confessions, forced to do time for a crime they did not commit, and, eventually, exonerated when their convictions were vacated in 2002. The story of the Central Park Five has certainly been covered extensively by media as well as the 2012 documentary The Central Park Five, co-directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. But this scripted miniseries, which debuts Friday on Netflix, feels more personal due to DuVernay’s intimate approach — she directed and co-wrote all four episodes — and thoughtful performances across the board, especially from the actors who portray the wrongly accused as boys and men.
Those five men are Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise. But when we meet them in the first episode, they’re just teenagers doing teenagery things on an April night in Harlem. When a slew of kids starts running toward Central Park, each of them, one by one, follows the mob, some of whom do start picking fights. When the cops eventually intervene, and the five boys are brought in and questioned (initially with no parents and certainly no attorneys present), When They See Us shows us, again and again, detectives coercing the five into admitting involvement and/or implicating each other in the rape of investment banker Trisha Meili, an attack that occurred on the same night that the fights and other harassment broke out, creating an all-too-convenient circumstance for pointing the finger at these black and Latino boys. Prosecutor Linda Fairstein, played by Felicity Huffman at a time when it’s especially easy to view her as a blinkered woman of white privilege, takes special interest in spinning a narrative that pins the crime on them.
Three episodes follow the two trials that ultimately land all five teens in prison for various periods of time, what happens to each of them during and post-incarceration, and, in the end, how their convictions are rendered null and void. Before getting to the case’s dismissal, a majority of the fourth episode focuses on Korey, the only one of the five sentenced as an adult and the one who winds up spending the most time behind bars in places like Rikers Island. Korey is also the only character portrayed from his teen years to adulthood by the same actor: Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight), who delivers the standout performance in this limited series, which is saying something considering that the cast is filled with excellent actors.
Jerome is blessed with a youthful face that, with added facial hair, can slide easily up and down the age spectrum. But he also uses his expressions and body language as incredibly persuasive tools. As a teenage Korey, his eyes go from wide to wider, expressing his default naïveté or shock at what’s happening to and around him. Korey is reserved and soft-spoken — he’s embarrassed to admit he has a hard time reading — but he speaks up loudly when he feels he’s been done an injustice. Jerome brings an energy to the performance that’s reminiscent of the quiet righteousness of Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing. That may be intentional, since Spike Lee’s masterpiece was also released in 1989, two months after the incident in Central Park. When They See Us even nods directly to the movie: When the kids start racing toward the park, a boom box is blasting “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, the track that famously opens Lee’s film.
All of the actors portraying the wrongly convicted young men, at early and later stages, inhabit them with a natural ease that makes their fear and indignation even more vivid and, ultimately, bonds them to each other. In episode three, when Yusef (played at this point by Chris Chalk) and Antron (Jovan Adepo) run into each other at a mandatory class that’s part of their probation, there’s a built-in comfort level that enables them to joke around, something that would be ordinary for anyone else but is a cathartic act for two people tethered to each other by tragedy.
The dynamics between the boys’ parents are just as heavy, particularly between Yusef’s mother Sharone (Aunjanue Ellis) and Korey’s mother Delores (a fiery Niecy Nash), who resents what she perceives as Sharone’s selfish tendency to put her son’s needs above everyone else’s. The climate in every family shifts over the years: For Ray, who returns home to find his loyal father (John Leguizamo) married to a younger wife (Dascha Polanco of Orange Is the New Black), and for Antron, whose unreliable father (Michael K. Williams) has become seriously ill. Metaphorically and literally, it’s like there’s no room for these boys in the world anymore.
When They See Us has a tendency to lean into its drama, which can sometimes work and sometimes causes the series to get tripped up in clichés. When District Attorney Robert Morgenthau (Len Carious) calls prosecutor Nancy Ryan (Famke Janssen) into his office to tell her that another convicted rapist, Matias Reyes (Reece Noi), has confessed to the attack on Meili, he reminds her of the context. “19,” he says, and then Ryan finishes with a portentous: “89.” That exchange is more suited to a scene in a CBS procedural than a grounded series like this. Because the series is generally so grounded, when it veers off track, it’s especially jarring.
But DuVernay also sometimes dances toward tropes on purpose, only to undercut them in a way that emphasizes the lack of fairness that’s the basis for this story. During episode two, when an expert confirms during the trial that no DNA links any of the suspects to the scene of the crime, there’s a swell in the music and the emotions of the suspects and their families that, in another series, would lead straight to their triumphant acquittal. But every time there is a hint of good news here, it’s usually followed by bad. When Korey tries to put in for another prison transfer with the hope that he’ll be relocated closer to his mom in Harlem, he says, “My bad luck been used up.” Naturally, he winds up in the worst possible place, at the greatest possible distance. In When They See Us, optimism only begets more pain.
It’s not surprising that When They See Us has such relevancy given the inequities that persist in terms of law enforcement’s treatment of people of color. But just in case anyone can’t connect the dots from ’89 to now, DuVernay makes a point of reminding viewers, more than once, that Donald Trump interjected himself into the Central Park Five conversation by taking out paid advertisements in every major New York newspaper, advocating for the death penalty for the accused.
“You’d better believe I hate the people who did this,” Trump says during an actual press conference that’s shown on television while one of the mothers of “those people” is watching. When They See Us may ultimately have a triumphant ending for its protagonists. But more than anything, this miniseries reminds us that what happened to those five boys three decades ago could just as easily happen today, in the name of what some powerful figures would perceive as justice.