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The Best Miniseries on TV Is When They See Us

It’s the Platonic ideal of what thoughtful popular art can be in this country but rarely is.

Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Netflix
Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Netflix
Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Netflix

The spirit of lyrical, empathetic, yet down-and-dirty filmmaking is alive and well in the year’s best miniseries, When They See Us. Ava DuVernay’s miniseries about the railroading of five black teenagers for a rape they didn’t commit is an artistic achievement in the vein of Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and Dog Day Afternoon (a showpiece DuVernay recently stumped for on Turner Classic Movies). But it takes place in 1989, and in both form and substance, it does things that would’ve been unthinkable in the commmercial Hollywood system in the era it so vividly channels — starting with its exclusive focus on the five teens wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park, and the family and friends whose lives were turned upside down during their imprisonment.

As impressive for its unaffected acting and quietly assured storytelling as for its vision of institutionalized racism in the courts, the media, and the prison system, and deftly balancing the feelings and aspirations of its characters (even as it situates them within a social mural as vast and teeming with life as any that Robert Altman or Spike Lee ever composed), When They See Us is a rare glimpse of a humanistic cinema that is rooted in reality but also handsomely produced, packaged as a mainstream accessible product, and marketed to a wide audience — a combination of circumstances that have rarely been allowed in the history of the commercial entertainment system in the United States.

Only a streaming platform like Netflix, which encourages innovation from filmmakers and releases entire seasons at once, could have allowed such an unconventionally structured story line and showcased it so well. Clocking in at just over five hours, the narrative is broken into four chapters. The first two are a more traditional big-city ensemble, the third concentrates on four of the teens — Yusuf Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCrae, and Raymond Santana — after their release from prison in the late 1990s, and the final chapter focuses on the uniquely hellish suffering of the fifth defendant, Korey Wise, an older teen who was tried as an adult because he was 16 at the time of his arrest. Unlike the others, he was detained and imprisoned in adult facilities, where he was tormented by guards and other prisoners and survived a savage beating that he insisted on recovering from in solitary confinement because he’d been warned that his enemies would have an easier time killing him in the infirmary.

When They See Us is the greatest entry yet in DuVernay’s ongoing series of works that either focus on or tangentially incorporate her central theme that the American criminal-justice system, which disproportionately targets and imprisons black people, is a continuation of slavery and segregation by other means, enforcing a two-tier system of law and order: one for white folks, the other for everybody else. Almost everything DuVernay directs or produces throws a spotlight on this idea or finds space for it in the margins of another story, from the civil-rights-era drama Selma (which includes an Eisensteinean shot of a white police officer attacking black protesters with a bullwhip that unfurls in slo-mo close-up) to her documentary 13th (about how the institutionalized racism of the criminal-justice system keeps a percentage of the black population mired in a modern version of slavery) to her OWN drama Queen Sugar (in which one of the main characters is an ex-convict struggling through parole after his release).

But even if When They See Us didn’t continue DuVernay’s obsessions in a grander manner than she has attempted previously, the miniseries would still be noteworthy as a milestone in its director’s artistic evolution. To watch it is to experience one of those spine-tingling moments you have as a devotee of a particular filmmaker when you realize there’s something special going on that is congruent with what the artist has done in the past yet is clearly bigger and more complex, assured, and nimble. This is a work by a storyteller fully in command of her craft, drawing on everything she has made, watched, read about, and experienced, then putting it all into a work that’s as impressive as any of her directorial heroes’ yet is seemingly without ego. It really does feel as though the project exists not to showcase the mastery of the artists who worked on it but to tell the stories of others to such a degree that, even when an individual scene includes a dazzling performance or bit of direction, your first instinct is not to wonder how they did it but to ponder what it reveals about the characters and their struggles.

One example occurs in the third episode, in a montage that shows one of the five boys, Raymond Santana Jr., having a series of phone conversations with his father. Cinematographer Bradford Young’s camera starts on the black space of a wall and glides to reveal Raymond Sr. (John Leguizamo) having a conversation with his young son, who is speaking on a jailhouse phone. The sequence establishes the passage of time, revealing the adult Santana Jr. (Marquis Rodriguez) and Raymond Sr.’s new baby. It takes place over a span of years and communicates the passage of time as a series of discrete tableaux, each introduced by another sweeping camera move across a black screen that has the psychological effect of seeing a curtain rise again and again at a live theater production, or of rounding a corner at the Museum of Natural History and seeing a new diorama. The sequence is so strongly rooted in the particulars of each man’s situation and the bond between them as established by the telephone, which connects them emotionally even though they are physically separated, that we don’t think of the sequence as being cleverly directed even though it is.

When They See Us is old-school craft in an old-school vein (muckraking docudrama with a slight neorealist flavor — notice those searching close-ups of the young actors’ faces) but is presented on a new-school delivery platform. It’s pretty much the Platonic ideal of what thoughtful popular art can be in this country but rarely is.

A Closer Look at When They See Us

1. “Kevin did it” (Part 1)

This sequence from part one of When They See Us is the best example of how the cast and the filmmaking team tell the story with virtuoso control of substance and style. It’s hard to pull just one section from this episode because the entire thing feels of a piece, from the opening scenes establishing the main players and their families, which treat them as a community bonded by color even though some of the adult players have only a tenuous connection. This notion continues through to the end, when the teens gather to discuss what happened. One admits he lied under pressure, and the dam breaks: They realize with a flood of emotion that they’ve all been broken and mistreated and that the course of their lives has changed as a result.

In the middle of all this is an extraordinary section showing how the police erode the defiance and skepticism of the adults who are supposed to be protecting the kids, then set about shaping the state’s narrative of the jogger’s attack and positioning the kids as scapegoats. The sequence is rapidly edited and crosscut from start to finish, so you feel the tide turning and the story seeming to shape itself. Not only does this section help audiences understand how forced or manipulated false confessions can happen, it also illustrates how even the innocent can start to doubt their own experience and begin adhering to an alternate version of reality. DuVernay isn’t speaking just to a past incident of misconduct by police and prosecutors but also to the eternal malleability of journalism and history, which can be molded to fit a particular narrative through gaslighting and the unrelenting pressure of repetition. (Not for nothing does the miniseries make a ghostly supporting player of President Trump, who in 1989 took out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the teens’ conviction and execution and went on TV to make the case again.)

The continuous flow of the entire first episode is less characteristic of docudrama TV than of visually driven feature films or a lyrical novel by an author like E.L. Doctorow or John Edgar Wideman, in which one sentence rolls right into the next, tying thought to thought and image to image, braiding picture and sound, dialogue and performance, so you can see the totality of the story encompassed in each exchange — each tableau of grown men and cowering boys, each moment of manipulation and compromise, fear and anger, unexamined bigotry and ingrained moral failure — and feel the dread that escalates frame by frame and scene by scene.

2. Thwarted love (Part 3)

Here, Raymond Jr. tries to get with his wannabe-girlfriend Tanya (Aurora Perrineau) while eliding the fact that he’s an ex-con who lives with his dad and stepmother, can’t get most legitimate jobs, and is forbidden from contacting known felons, which means he can’t talk to the people he went to prison with or a lot of the friends he knew growing up. From the opening of this sequence — which shows the skittish Raymond picking up a pay phone to call Tanya at the urging of a close friend — to Raymond and Tanya’s final argument, when Raymond’s anguish and sense of helplessness radiate from the screen, we’re seeing the devastating effect of wrongful incarceration.

This scene also exemplifies the superb naturalistic performances DuVernay elicits from her entire cast, who enact a wider range of situations and emotions than movies and miniseries typically assign to actors of color. There are heroes in this story, and failures, and bystanders, and characters who grasp exactly what has been done to them, and others who still seem uncomprehending even after suffering years of wrongful imprisonment or watching a loved one go through it. Then there are the bystanders who don’t know the four boys, have no sense of the pain and indignity they’ve suffered, and are shocked by the misery and rage that pours out of them in unguarded moments.

Raymond and Tanya’s scenes are brief and scattered amid other plotlines, but they’re so richly conceived that it’s easy to imagine them as the basis for a separate feature about a young ex-convict and the woman he falls in love with. We see the nervous flush of Tanya’s bold first move, the excitement of two young people getting it on, the mortification of being humiliated by a parental figure in front of your sweetheart, and the shock, on Tanya’s part, of discovering that the man she finds so attractive is still a prisoner in ways that she does and does not grasp. The most revelatory moment sounds like an almost involuntary one: When Raymond realizes that the narrative has escaped his control once again and that he’s going to lose Tanya, he abandons all vanity and toughness and bleats out a sound of pure anguish.

3. The Last Temptation of Korey (Part 4)

The final section of When They See Us is so harrowing it’s nearly unwatchable at times. It is segmented off from the rest of the story, almost as if a section of the production had been placed in solitary confinement along with its main character, Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome, the only actor in the miniseries who plays both the teen and adult versions of his character). Ostracized, needled, intimidated, abused, and assaulted by the authorities and his fellow inmates, Korey is a pariah trapped in hell and unable to imagine an escape. DuVernay and Young contrast liberating sunlight glimpsed through smallish windows with the harshness of the prison’s alternately corroded and antiseptic brutalist architecture, making the entire section, which takes up roughly half of the episode’s 88-minute running time, into a visual experiment in confinement.

When Korey sustains a savage beating and asks to recuperate in solitary in order to prevent further attacks, When They See Us daringly departs from the realm of social realism and becomes a more impressionistic — and expressionistic — experience. The events are manifestations not just of what happened but of what Korey felt, imagined, and dreamed as he suffered. By turns reminiscent of the final sequences of Brazil and The Last Temptation of Christ, this is a self-contained, brief film within a film, a little aria of interiority, as Korey imagines an alternate path for himself (if only he had stayed in that restaurant with his girlfriend instead of accepting his friends’ invitation to go into Central Park) and envisions a reconciliation with his mother, who deserted and failed him when he needed her most. The only things that save this sequence from being unbearable are the beatific expressions that pass across Jerome’s face and the way Young uses sunlight to halo the character, as if he’s been momentarily seen and comforted by God.

The Other Contenders

This was an exceptional year for the limited-run miniseries, and two other productions made nearly as strong an impression as When They See Us.

One was Fosse/Verdon, a mosaic docudrama about the partnership between sometime-married dancer-choreographers Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) and Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell). Overseen by a murderer’s row of executive producers — including Thomas Kail, Steven Levinson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, The Americans’ Joel Fields, and Verdon and Fosse’s only child, dancer-choreographer-producer Nicole Fosse — the production drew early criticism for being another entry in the “charismatic antiheroic man” genre of prestige TV. But it ultimately sorted itself out into an incisive and surprising look at how, in many male-female power partnerships, the woman often ends up supporting, rescuing, and otherwise nursemaiding the man, who basks in glory and receives more opportunities than she does, despite his having a well-earned reputation as either “a handful” or an outright disaster. The result ultimately plays like a corrective to Fosse’s subtly self-flattering autobiographical fantasia and is proof that the miniseries wasn’t what people assumed, but was actually setting the stage to be something else.

Still more formidable was HBO’s Chernobyl, created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, an account of the 1986 nuclear meltdown and its mishandling by the Soviet government, starring a cast of mostly English actors led by Jared Harris and Emily Watson. Meticulously charting this ultimate bad-to-worse nightmare of modern catastrophe, this miniseries has one unexpected but important thing in common with When They See Us: an interest in dramatizing how ideology and personal ambition can shape an event’s official story. Though understandably light on humor (except the pitch-black, Kafka-esque sort), this was what entertainment-industry insiders might flippantly describe as “a tough sit.” But its patient, insightful exploration of the mechanics of man-made disaster was so riveting that viewers did not merely return each week for more misery but eagerly urged their friends to watch it, creating one of the year’s most unlikely word-of-mouth-driven successes.

When They See Us ultimately eclipsed these productions and all others for the singularity of its vision and tone, the supple certitude of its filmmaking and acting, its empathy for the sorts of characters whose stories never get told, and its ability to connect the past and present without blatantly putting one in service to the other. It’s a major work by a major filmmaker.

Vulture’s sixth annual TV Awards honor the best in television from the past year in six major categories: best lead performer, best supporting performer, best writing, best direction, best miniseries, and best show. Eligible contenders had to have premiered between June 1, 2018, and May 31, 2019.

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The Best Miniseries on TV Is When They See Us