Ava DuVernay returned with the force of a tropical storm in 2019 with the release of her four part mini-series When They See Us. Set mainly in 1990s New York, the series follows the story of five Black and Latino underage boys who were brought in for questioning involving a case of rape against a female jogger in Central Park. The story arc of the series is typical, there’s a brief background on the characters and their families, a depiction of the night the attack occurred highlighting where each boy was when it happened, the subsequent court case(s), and finally the lives of the prosecuted upon their release from jail. While the path of the series is typical, the story within it is anything but.
The night of the assault on Patricia Meili in Central Park, the cops also reported receiving multiple harassment calls stating that groups of young boys were pestering bikers and joggers around the park. Countless officers show up on scene and disperse, chasing down any of the underage boys who were in the area, catching some but missing most. In the chaos officers discover Patricia, beaten unconscious just off a pathway and rush her to the hospital for her injuries. This launches a rigorous investigation to find the assaulter that left her right on the brink of death, a powerless survivor with lasting major physical and mental injuries.
In the following days, detectives track (through witness accounts or word of mouth) five young boys who had all been at the park that night: Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana Jr. All but Korey, who was 16 at the time, were 15 years old or younger. Following their arrests these boys are held for hours on end with no food, more often than not questioned without the presence of a lawyer or a guardian. In their time at the station, these boys are beaten, and coerced not only to fabricate a story about a rape they knew nothing about but to turn against one another (most of them never having met before). In two separate trials these five children are tried, eventually receiving a guilty verdict and sent to the ‘appropriate’ correctional facilities where they spent the majority of their young lives. While the series ends shortly after the group is released from their various prisons, the story it’s based on is very real and does not end there.
The case itself was a whirlwind, shining light on how wrongful convictions are a toxic side-effect to the operations of the American criminal justice system. Even more so, this case was a milestone cultural marker. The trial swept the nation, landing on the front page of every news source and causing even the most outspoken of big shot business men to take out $85,000 in ads calling for the death penalty for these kids. Many things contributed to the flames of this case’s fire, but none more so than race. New York was a hotbed for race relation issues in the 80s, so with the victim a white woman and the perpetrator(s) suspected to be POC youth there was an urgency across the nation to get a substantial conviction.
DuVernay spends every moment of this series visually laying out the countless wrongdoings associated with this case, including the pressure to convict the boys. Taking the time to say that what happened to Patricia Meili was insidious and traumatizing, she also pushes the message that improper conviction brings justice to no one. She focuses, from the beginning, on the youth of these kids. How their innocent night playing basketball with friends led to their entire lives being changed, how the odds were stacked astronomically against them, and how they had no chance at changing this outcome. Every single injustice is brutally laid out for the viewer, and from every angle. While she focuses on errors on the side of the prosecution, she also lays out the different styles of each defense attorney assigned to the boys and how this played a factor into their sentencing. By showcasing the good decisions by family members, DuVernay allows humility by displaying the immense pressure put on the families of these young kids to do anything they could to protect them.
This is a show I would definitely recommend watching through more than once, if not only because DuVernay is meticulous in how she portrays the story. There is a lot to catch on a second watch!
At its base, this is a story of wrongful conviction. One in which she highlights the effects it has on not only the accused but also the helpless victim, the woman who can’t begin to fully heal until her assailant is found. There are so many layers to the message she is trying to get out. Not only is this a failure of the justice system, but a failure of the way we prosecute in criminal court cases, of the role media plays in high profile cases, of the claimed rehabilitation intentions of the prison system, and the very deep set systemic racism alive in each of these. DuVernay is careful to highlight these issues at every turn, including minor details in early episodes that end up being crucial pieces of misinformation later on in the case(s).
Along with that, she also includes flashbacks for some of the boys that highlight an important detail of their home lives. These moments work to humanize them, to show the viewer that they really were just young boys that were robbed of their chance to live like kids. The protection of youthful innocence is something that we can all connect to or agree upon, it makes us sympathize with those who have that taken away from them. She makes her audience sympathize through the narrative and visuals, so that they feel just how wrongfully these kids are being treated and are forced to examine exactly why. In each episode of this mini-series you truly feel every ounce of emotion, from the confusion to the to the heartache to the triumph.
Not only does she explain to the viewer how race was a major factor in this case, DuVernay isn’t afraid to say that innocence of youth, sexuality, abuse of power, class, and religion all contributed. It wasn’t until 2002 that these five men were fully exonerated from their original charges for the rape case, and it was between 2014 to 2016 when they settled with the city for less than $50 million total. Patricia Meili didn’t get real justice until 2001 when her true assaulter came forward and admitted to the crime. This case, these boys, fell victim to systemic injustices stacked against them from the beginning of time and this series is a milestone in illustrating these problems to a larger audience.
DuVernay communicates such themes in a way that is poignant but palatable for those who wouldn’t normally think to watch something like this. Between the beautiful storytelling, and the packed cast of both bright young actors as well as big name celebrities, this series is one that leaves a mark on your mind. The talent and raw emotion brought forth by the actors playing those involved with the case drives the narrative home, not a single scene plays without palpable tension whether good or bad. A simple, yet evocative score resonates throughout the series helping the viewer to understand how to process the difficult moments posed throughout each episode. Each installment holds so much information, but at no point is it overwhelming, it unfolds in a way that makes sense with nothing unnecessary or left out. DuVernay has again masterfully used her voice as a writer and director to cinematically communicate incredibly heavy themes in a way that is deeply impactful and lasting, yet able to reach wider audiences. When They See Us is a drama that you wish wasn’t reality, but makes you swallow the hard truth that it is.