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When They See Us [Movie Review]


When They See Us was created, directed, and produced by Ava Duvernay for Netflix. The miniseries tells the story of five teens from Harlem who were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated for the brutal physical assault and rape of Trisha Meili in 1989. The teens were Kevin Richardson (14), Raymond Santana (14), Antron McCray (15), Yusef Salaam (15), and Korey Wise (16).


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Show Notes

I was already born by the time the assault on Trisha Meili took place and the prosecution of what would come to be known as the Central Park Five began. But I was way too young to know anything about what was going on. The case came up again around the time I was in high school but I don’t remember being aware of the Central Park Five until quite some time later when I saw the Ken Burns documentary.

I had to work the weekend of the When They See Us release so it wasn’t really on my radar until I returned to work a few days later and it seemed to be all that everyone could talk about. I made it a point to jump right in and started watching during my lunch break. This usually works with other movies and TV shows but When They See Us is the type of film that you really need to sit down and give your full attention.

Young Kevin Richardson (portrayed by Asante Blackk)
Young Kevin Richardson (portrayed by Asante Blackk)

When I got home, I settled in and started watching intently. The thing that immediately struck me was that the actor who plays teen Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk) resembles one of my younger cousins. Watching him get assaulted by a police officer and then being aggressively interrogated really affected me. This initially drew me into When They See Us because it was no longer just about something that had happened to these other young men who are strangers to me. In seeing the experience of this one Black young man that I didn’t know, I saw what the Black young men that I do know could face.

A few years ago I was on a legal kick and along with a few other books read Actual Innocence by Barry Scheck, Jim Dwyer, and Peter Neufeld and there were two things that really stood out to me. First, it’s actually not that uncommon for people to be coerced into confessing to crimes that they didn’t actually commit. The book provides examples of people with learning disabilities, minors, and otherwise regular folks being convinced to confess to or give statements about crimes that they did not commit and/or had no knowledge of. Second, it usually requires an instance of gross misconduct for a member of law enforcement, prosecutor, or judge to be held personally accountable for their role in a wrongful conviction.

I watched When They See Us and saw five young men in interrogation rooms being questioned for what’s stated as several hours during which they denied the charges and any involvement with the crime. And then saw where the police used various tactics and threats to coerce them into pointing the finger at other alleged participants some of whom they did not know and whose names and likenesses had to be pointed out to them. I’ve never had any contact with the police as a suspect in a crime but I’ve heard that when arrested you say nothing to the police and instead ask for your attorney or in the case of a minor your parent.

Watching grown men physically intimidate and attack teenage boys made it easy to understand why they were scared and willing to say or do anything that might allow them to go home. Until I read those books about the justice system I was under the impression that minors could not be questioned by police officers without at least a parent being present. Watching the interrogations of these teens some of whom initially had no parent or guardian present really pushed the point that this really should be a requirement when questioning minors.

Young Antron McCray (portrayed by Caleel Harris)
Young Antron McCray (portrayed by Caleel Harris)

But adults can also be threatened and bullied into giving false confessions and statements. Not placing any blame but seeing one of the parents actually turn on his child in a misguided attempt to save both of them shows that simply having an adult in the room is not enough. Eventually, most of the boys had a parent or other adult in the room on their behalf but that didn’t really help them.

It’s shown that some of the confessions were merely signed but not written by the person supposedly making the confession. We’ve all heard of reading any document before you sign but how do you do that if you can’t read properly? Fortunately by this time technology had reached a point where it was possible to record interrogations and witness interviews. But none of the cameras seemed to begin recording until after the inconsistencies in the timeline of events had been mostly worked out and the so-called “confessions” had been reasonably memorized.

Seeing the police put together a convenient timeline of events and then work backward to string together confessions was unsurprising. But to then see the prosecutors not present evidence that raised questions about the true identity of the suspect was enraging. Having no physical evidence or eyewitnesses tied to the people presented as suspects in a crime and then dismissing any evidence that points away from them is reprehensible.

When They See Us spent the first episode explaining how these five teens wound up being roped into the investigation and the second episode focused on the legal strategies and trials. I get that hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to look back and point out the things that look questionable. But even with the evidence that was presented and disregarding how questionable it might be there seemed to be so little of it.

I don’t understand how a jury of 12 people managed to convict these individuals based on the limited evidence and arguments that were presented. I get that movies sometimes take creative license with facts even when portraying a story based on real events. But if the timeline, confessions, and evidence were indeed as shaky as they’re made out to be I don’t understand how this case still resulted in a conviction.

The third episode of When They See Us showed how the teens who initially went to juvenile detention adjusted to life in prison and then the world following their releases. Given how young these four of the Central Park Five were when they went to prison they were still relatively young men when they were released. But being released on parole rather than exonerated at that point meant they had to deal with some members of society and even individuals within their personal circles regarded them as rapists and criminals.

Young Raymond Santana (portrayed by Marquis Rodriguez)
Young Raymond Santana (portrayed by Marquis Rodriguez)

It can be difficult for a Black or Hispanic person to find employment without a high school diploma, college degree, and/or work experience. These young men would have missed out on finishing traditional high school and the experience of graduation and prom. But they would have also missed out on some of the life experiences that prepare young adults for the working world. In addition, having the stigma of a felony conviction, especially for a brutal rape and assault that had been widely publicized, would have made it even more difficult to obtain and maintain employment. Not only were these young men robbed of being able to experience their late teens they also missed out on being able to pursue the goals and dreams that they held in their youth.

Before I had a chance to watch When They See Us myself I’d heard other people mention how emotional they became while watching the movie. There were some moments in the first to the third episode that really got to me but I was able to hold it together for the most part. That wasn’t the case when I watched the final episode which focused on Korey Wise (portrayed by Jharrel Jerome throughout the film) and his immediate placement in an adult prison, Rikers Island, due to him being 16 years old.

Obviously prison is not supposed to be like Disney World. The intent is to deprive individuals of their freedom as punishment for breaking the law. But if there’s any hope of these individuals being able to eventually assimilate back into society their basic humanity has to be recognized. It’s also to be expected that the guards who are paid to supervise these individuals and prison facilities should maintain order and ensure the safety of prisoners. Prisoners should not have to worry about being victimized by other prisoners or prison guards.

Duvernay made the choice to show the passing of time for the other young men through conversations and life moving on outside of prison. But we don’t see much of their day-to-day experience inside of prison. They’re all able to maintain some kind of continuous contact with their families through what seemed to be regular phone calls and visits. Life isn’t great but there is hope that they will eventually get out and that they aren’t carrying all of this by themselves but have their families to lean on.

Korey Wise (portrayed by Jharrel Jerome)
Korey Wise (portrayed by Jharrel Jerome)

Watching Korey navigate his introduction to Rikers Island was upsetting. To see a teen boxed in with grown men who have obviously been in prison for some time seemed irresponsible and incredibly unfair. He looked physically small and unsure of himself standing next to these men and there’s an underlying tension which foreshadows that he’s going to have a hard time. I was not ready.

You get an idea of Korey’s day-to-day experience in various adult maximum security prisons around New York State. It would be difficult to have family members who were already likely struggling financially. But collect phone calls are expensive, visits to distant parts of the state cost money as well, and then there’s pressure to ask your family for money for your commissary because the food is bad and you’re expected to provide treats for other prisoners and corrections officers. We’ve all heard about the depravity but capitalism is also definitely alive and thriving within prison walls.

The situation was not the teens’ fault but there are still a lot of “what if” and “if only” questions to be asked. It’s especially heartbreaking when you take into account that Korey was supposedly only roped in with the others because he accompanied his friend to the police precinct to offer moral support. How differently might things have gone if he’d let his friend go to the precinct alone or had stayed with his girlfriend rather than going to the park?

Young Yusef Salaam (portrayed by Ethan Herisse)
Young Yusef Salaam (portrayed by Ethan Herisse)

Or take it further and ask what if none of them had gone to the park? Or what if they’d been able to hold out against the police’s unscrupulous interrogations. But that becomes a slippery slope that places the onus for avoiding a wrongful conviction on the wrongfully convicted rather than on the individuals that focused on closing the case by any means even if that meant locking away five innocent boys while the actual perpetrator remained free to continue his vicious attacks on women.

I don’t want to go into detail about the specifics of When They See Us because I think it’s incredibly important that you see the story of the five boys who are now men for yourself. That we watch, learn, ask questions, and push for a more fair and balanced path forward. You would hope that a situation like this would be a learning experience and would hopefully happen only once.

But as a student of history I can tell you that before the Central Park Five there were the Scottsboro Boys as well as numerous other black boys, men, women, and girls who were accused of not just rape but also other crimes for which they were railroaded, wrongfully convicted, and even in some cases executed.

You might take some comfort in believing that these injustices are things of the past but the truth of the matter is that decades after the Central Park Five these injustices still take place. You don’t have to look any further than the case of Kalief Browder.

The popularity of smartphones has made it easier for people to document transgressions of police officers against Black people. Yet while these cases seem to pop up with startling regularity police officers are usually not held professionally accountable or legally responsible for their actions. And when it’s protested and people state that “Black Lives Matter” a portion of society becomes offensively dismissive and reductive by retorting that “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter”.

I think it’s a waste of time to even entertain conversations of this nature with people who choose to be willfully obtuse. Because even with advances in forensics and technology and the ridiculous idea that we now live in a post-racial and predominantly progressive society the justice system still remains unjust when it comes to us.

Quite often there is still a rush to judgment when a Black person is accused of a crime not necessarily because of an overwhelming abundance of evidence. But seemingly because of the accused’s race and stereotypes. Yet when crimes are committed against Black people the perpetrators are often given the benefit of the doubt or excuses and explanations are offered for the transgressions.

The media, law enforcement, prosecutors, and other participants in the justice system seem to be forever at the ready to convict without trial when suspects are Black. But Lady Justice is allowed to be unbiased and given free rein in cases where alleged suspects are White, especially if the individual comes from a middle-class or wealthy background.

For example, Dylann Roof walked into a church and with no provocation murdered multiple people who were attending Bible study. After being taken into custody he was provided with fast food when he was hungry. The media avoided calling Dylann Roof a terrorist and instead made a big deal of inquiring about the victims’ families being able to forgive him for the crime.

Brock Turner sexually assaulted a young woman while attending Stanford University and was sentenced to six months in prison for the attack in hopes of not getting his bright future too off track. Ethan Couch killed four people while driving under the influence of alcohol and a psychologist testified that he was entitled and unable to deal with the consequences of his actions as a result of growing up wealthy. He received probation and then fled the country which violated his probation before being sentenced to two years in prison.

There were no full-page ads calling for any of these individuals to be executed.

When They See Us artwork

Generally speaking while I am very interested in history and current events to some degree I usually make a very conscious effort to not watch the news. I firmly believe that it’s important to understand what’s going on in the world around you both locally within your neighborhood and also globally. But I feel like news outlets focus on stories that will generate ratings and don’t always take into account waiting for facts or the full details of a story. By all means, I believe that when someone has a crime committed against them they deserve justice and when someone commits a crime, justice should be served. But I don’t buy into the idea that we should use other people’s pain and suffering as entertainment which is what I believe a lot of news organizations do.

There’s crime in the world. The amount and type might vary but there’s still crime in your local neighborhood and around the country. But we live in relatively safe times compared to periods in the past. Yet watching the news and seeing the types of stories that are reported you would believe that we’re in the midst of a never-ending and always growing crime wave. That we should be fearful of others and whether leaving your house or within the walls of your home you are not safe. News organizations and other media outlets on both ends of the political spectrum play a role in this fear-mongering.

And to make matters worse it’s not just a matter of cherry picking the most shocking, violent, and upsetting news stories that will make people afraid and get them riled up. But also who the news chooses to focus on and make the face of crime. To be clear I am not against reporting on both the good and the bad that takes place in a community because people need to know what’s going on around them. But rather that news organizations, politicians, law enforcement, and other entities involved choose to play up or downplay the frequency and severity of crime problems as they see fit rather than being factual and unbiased.

People of all races commit crimes. They might vary but they do occur. Yet what the media would have you believe is that not only is crime a growing menace but that the face of crime is Black or Brown. When crimes are committed and the suspect is believed to be or found to be Black there’s a rush to judgment before there’s even a trial. The idea of being innocent until proven guilty does not apply. Black people have been shown to be more likely to face prosecution, be convicted, and receive longer sentences than their White counterparts. Granted a large part of an individual’s ability to mount a vigorous defense depends on their ability to obtain effective counsel.

But we have to ask ourselves how fair is the justice system if your ability to fully exercise your rights is dependent upon your ability to pay for assistance? How likely are you to get a fair trial if the people who are supposed to investigate are more concerned with closing a case and identifying a suspect than they are with finding the actual person that committed the crime? How likely are you to get a fair trial if it’s been shown that people have a hard time identifying and differentiating between people of a different race but yet they’re being called upon as eyewitnesses? How likely are you to get a fair trial if the judges and jurors that sit in judgment of you have been exposed to a system that paints you and people that look like you as criminally inclined?

How fair is it that you can be accused, prosecuted, and sentenced for a crime due to police officers’ and prosecutors’ questionable work? And while you sit in prison watching years of your life go by these individuals are able to go on with their lives. They see and experience things that you will never have a chance to.>/p>

If you’ve never asked yourself those questions before you most likely will after watching When They See Us.

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