“No justice, no peace.” Words used as a battle cry, words used to spark a revolution, and most distinctively, words used to strengthen communities facing discrimination from the people sworn to protect them. No other series this year makes better use of those words than When They See Us, a thought-provoking limited series exclusive to Netflix. Backed by Oprah Winfrey and directed, produced, and co-written by Ava DuVernay, When They See Us is no run-of-the-mill Netflix series, as it far exceeds Netflix’s typical true crime fare.
When They See Us is a passion project of DuVernay, a director who doesn’t shy away from speaking about political, social, and racial injustices both from behind and in front of the camera. Surpassing the confinements of being just another Netflix hit, the series has sparked a robust discourse and passionate outrage against the handling of the 1989 Central Park Jogger Case. This case divided not only New York City, but the nation as a whole as five innocent teenagers of color were wrongfully found guilty for a crime they didn’t commit. As Oprah’s interview with the five exonerated men is set to air on both OWN and Netflix, now is the perfect time to drop what you’re doing and watch When They See Us.
Before listing the reasons why you should watch this extraordinary series, let’s talk about the real-life events that led to it. On the night of April 19th, 1989, a white female jogger by the name of Trisha Meili was attacked and raped in the North Woods of Manhattan’s Central Park. The heinous act was so brutal that it left Meili in a coma for 12 days. She survived but still suffers from lasting trauma all these years later.
Coincidentally, unrelated attacks committed by teens occurred in the park on the same evening as Meili’s rape. Of the 30 teenagers brought in for questioning about that night, four African-American teens and one Latino teenager were coerced into falsely confessing their guilt after being unrightfully interrogated by the police without an adult present. Their names are Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. Due to those taped confessions and the New York Police Department’s growing need for a suspect, the teens were charged and convicted with the assault, rape, and attempted murder of Meili. These five served prison terms of 6 to 13 years but were exonerated in 2002 when Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist serving life in prison, confessed to the crimes along with his DNA evidence as proof.
Years have passed since the case was closed and the five were exonerated. A 2012 documentary titled The Central Park Five was made to show the negligence of the New York City Police Department and the people who prosecuted the boys. The five successfully sued the city of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress, but the story is far from over as the five rightfully sued again for additional damages caused during the ordeal.
DuVernay didn’t make When They See Us for our entertainment. This is a project handled by people who want to bring humanity and dignity back to five young boys robbed of a childhood. Throughout the four episodes, you see their life before, during, and after the case. You witness their dreams and aspirations, and experience not only their own emotions but also those of their loved ones.
When They See Us isn’t a triumph in storytelling nor a fantastic limited series just because it focuses on a racially charged case. It is those things because DuVernay combined her unique approach to storytelling with her love of documentaries. This combination allows audiences to experience things they couldn’t quite feel with The Central Park Five and other documentaries. DuVernay takes you back in time and makes you feel as if you lived through the events yourself.
The cast of When They See Us is phenomenal, and the performances are so gripping that you might get caught up in an array of emotions you didn’t think you had. Each actor playing the young boys and men they would eventually become is genuinely extraordinary; this begs the question, “why aren’t they in more films and television series?”
The most noteworthy actor in the limited series is Jharrel Jerome. The Moonlight and Selah & Spades star has been under the radar the past several years but is sure to become a household name after this performance. What makes his role the most difficult is that he plays both the teenaged and adult versions of Korey Wise. To understand how incredible of a feat this is, you’d have to know that Wise, unlike the other four convicted youth, was sent directly to state prison instead of juvenile detention. This is only made more depressing by the fact that Wise also had the longest sentence of the group and was still in prison when Reyes confessed to the crime.
Besides the series’ incredible cinematic visuals, the pin-point precision of details that transport you to a different time, and the always on-cue soundtrack, these young actors elevate When They See Us to a level uncommon in everyday television.
No matter your color, cultural background, or religion, When They See Us pierces your inner core. It is a series that allows you to understand the sentiment that people of color have towards the justice system and, by extension, America’s police force. If you ever want to understand the racial dilemma in America, drop what you’re doing and watch When They See Us.