STARRING: Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Jharrel Jerome, Marquis Rodriguez, Justin Cunningham, Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Kylie Bunbury, Aunjanue Ellis, Vera Farmiga, Felicity Huffman, John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams, Omar Dorsey, Fame Janssen, Joshua Jackson, Christopher Jackson, Adepero Oduye, Aurora Perrineau, Storm Reid, William Sadler and Blair Underwood
Chronicle the true story of a notorious case of five black teenagers who were convicted of a rape they did not commit.
When They See Us tells the true story of five teenagers from Harlem there were arrested and wrongfully convicted of a brutal attack on a female jogger that took place on the night of 19th April 1989. This four part limited series follows through the journey of the four boys on the night of the attack, to their arrest and trial to life after prison.
When They See Us is a Netflix Limited series that is based on the story of the Central Park Five, five African-American teenagers that became suspects in the 1989 Central Park jogger case and were convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. My knowledge of the true story is pretty limited in that it was brought up in a documentary series a few years ago (O.J Simpson: Made In America) and that Donald Trump at the time bought full page ads, looking to bring back the death penalty for the suspects involved in the Central Park jogger case. The limited series is created by Ava DuVernay, whose at her element when she brings to life these true stories in cinematic form, be it the Martin Luther King biopic Selma, or the Netflix documentary 13th which focused on race in the criminal justice system of the United States, so it feels apropos, fitting even that she helped develop and shed light on their story long after they served time for a crime they didn’t commit.
Ava DuVernay directed all the episodes here and, with Bradford Young handling the cinematography and the episodes edited by Spencer Averick, Terilyn A. Shropshire and Michelle Tesoro, this dramatisation of the story is structured well and creatively it’s captivating to watch as you feel claustrophobic, the walls closing in on you as the young teens are interrogated and berated by the detectives with tight close shots, and how it creatively elevates a particular characters spirit as he mentally ponders what would’ve happened if he didn’t go to the park that night.
The first episode gives us a brief glimpse of the five young boys (Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana) lives before they join a crowd heading to the park, unbeknownst to them that being at the wrong place at the wrong time will lead to them being arrested, convicted and sentenced for raping and almost beating to death Trisha Meili, a wealthy white woman, at the North Woods of Central Park. This leads to Linda Fairstein, the head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s sex crimes unit, getting the case and once she learns of a bunch of young kids arrested that were “wilding out” at the park, who despite the lack of evidence to convict the five teenagers, is willing to bend the truth and reshape the pieces to them fit her narrative, her truth of what occurred that night, recharacterising their night to her colleagues as being on a ‘rampage’ and referring to them as ‘animals’. Her and the fellow detectives interrogating the teenagers, believe in their certainty and prejudice (they’re never labelled as racist by anyone in this limited series) that even with the lack of evidence that they ‘must’ have done it. The interrogations of the teenagers will make for uncomfortable viewing, leaving audiences shocked and angry as the detectives beat and verbally abusive them, using the Mutt and Jeff (Good Cop/Bad Cop) in order to get them to break whilst the kids are just willing to tell them what they want in order to get home. The feeling I had in watching the first episode reminded me of when I watched the interrogation scene in In The Name Of The Father for the first time (a feature based on the true story of the Guildford Four) and how one of the officers breaking one of them to confess to a bombing he didn’t commit by telling him “I’m going to shoot your da”. The series also doesn’t shy away from bringing attention to how they were perceived in the media, as well as mentioning the Trump ad in the papers calling for the death penalty, as well as using old interview footage of him talking in relation to the jogger case.
The second episode focuses on the trial, which to be fair with the ‘confessions’ recorded, the boys are screwed before they enter the court as we see the process and political charge behind the justice system as even prosecuting attorney Elizabeth Lederer has her doubts on the case that it feels like she does what is required from the people around her rather than seeking the truth. We even get a friction amongst the kids and their parents, or the friction amongst the parents for the court case, as though they’re all in the same predicament, they’re still trying to look out for their own child. There’s particular friction between Sharonne Salaam and Delores Wise, whose sons may be the best of friends but they certainly don’t get along. There’s also the heartbreaking damage to the relationship of father and son between Bobby and Antron McCray, with the former suffering through years of guilt getting his son to confess out of fear of the police killing his son. The third episode takes a long at how you’re not only expected to fail and return into the system, but how it’s set up in a way that you can almost do nothing but fail, regardless of how you try, and also how the families have to deal with the fallout of their convictions and prison sentences, from losing jobs due to their ties to their son, to getting threatening calls. The performances from adult cast in particular are terrific, in particular Michael Kenneth Williams as Bobby McCray, Felicity Huffman is excruciatingly great as Linda Fairstein (and considering what’s happening to Huffman in real life, you’d might have added despise towards her character), Kylie Bunbury is really good as Kevin’s naive older sister Angie, Joshua Jackson as Mickey Joseph is a particular highlight as one of the lawyers defending the kids, John Leguizamo is as solid as always as Raymond’s caring father Raymond Santana Sr. and Niecy Nash is absolutely terrific as Korey’s mother Delores Wise.
The young cast (Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Jharrel Jerome and Marquis Rodriguez) as well are great in capturing the innocence, natively and horror of being caught up in a situation like that. The one that stands out though is Jharrel Jerome, who is the only one to portray the young and adult version of their character, his being Korey Wise, who becomes the main focus in the final episode. His journey is heartbreaking to watch and provides the most emotional moments in the limited series and Jerome is breathtaking to watch as Korey. I figured Jared Harris would be a lock for an Emmy with his performance in HBO miniseries Chernobyl but Jharrel Jerome is absolutely giving him a run for his money and the young actor has already had great performances in Moonlight and Mr. Mercedes, but this will skyrocket his star further. There’s also a little side-story in the final episode of Korey’s wife where we meet Marci Wise, his trans sister portrayed by Isis King, which leads to an emotionally heavy scene between King and Niecy Nash with both knocking it out of the park. The adult counterparts of the kids are solidly portrayed by Justin Cunningham, Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk and Freddy Miyares, with Miyares impressing me the most as the adult Raymond Santana, who struggles to adjust to life after prison and struggles to get a job which leads him into drug dealing. Admittedly due to the amount of material that DuVernay has to work with here, not only does the final episode feel too amount, the ending still feels rushed in how it wraps up but still the montage showing the young actors and the real life counterparts they portrayed to the sound of Frank Ocean’s ‘Moon River’ is very effective emotionally.
There’s a clear amount of attention to detail that has gone in When They See Us, paying respect to the emotional toll of the journey that all the families have gone through, as well as telling their truth for everyone to see for themselves, which was denied of them after the night of 19th April 1989. The performances are great, in particular Jharrel Jerome, Michael Kenneth Williams and Niecy Nash, with some great cinematography from Bradford Young once again. Ava DuVernay may be targeted for her choices of projects in relation to activism by a small circle, but you can feel the passion in every frame in doing the story justice and I believe When They See Us is her best work to date. 9/10