‘When They See Us’ is a miniseries created by Ava DuVernay for Netflix. It revolves around the premise of the infamous, Central Park jogger case, in which five teenagers were wrongfully convicted for the rape of a 28-year-old woman. The series focuses on the five characters and tells the story from their perspective, bringing the attention on all kinds of ways through which five innocent lives were destroyed because the cops didn’t do their job right.
This isn’t DuVernay’s first time dealing with a project that tells the story about racial prejudice and injustice. She has tackled similar themes in her previous works like the Academy Award-nominated ‘Selma’ and ‘13th’. Written by DuVernay, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, Yusuf Hassan and Michael Starrbury, ‘When They See Us’ stars Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares and Justin Cunningham in the lead roles, with Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Marquis Rodriguez and Asante Black playing the younger version of their characters.
Summary of the Plot
In 1989, America was rocked by the brutal assault and rape of a young woman, who was left for dead in Central Park. The police quickly picked up the pieces of the case and tried to put together everything to catch the perpetrator. They found it in five teenage boys- four African-American and one Hispanic- who had been a part of the mob that had been “wilding” around the park that night. Since the mob had been in the vicinity of the crime scene, the police rounded up everyone and after a thorough investigation (at least, that’s what they said), they end up blaming five teenagers, ranging from the age of 14 to 16. ‘When They See Us’ follows this case, one step at a time in each episode, and shows the audience how it went down, over the course of fifteen years.
Why You Should Watch ‘When They See Us’
If you are one of those people who have somehow led themselves to believe that things like racism are highly exaggerated (just as others believe that climate change is a hoax), then this series should be an education for you. It is not a fabrication; it is not dramatized for the sake of entertainment. It is the truth laid bare about the injustice that African-Americans have faced in the country for so long.
In just four episodes, DuVernay tells the stories of five people who will never get their childhood back, people who lost about fifteen years of their life to a crime they never committed in the first place. In a well-structured manner, every episode becomes a self-contained story that you can even watch as a standalone. The first episode follows the events of the night of the crime.
Unlike other shows, where the storyteller plays with you by leaving the “guilty or innocent” part hanging till the end, ‘When They See Us’ doesn’t beat around the bush. It begins with the scene that affirms the innocence of the five teenagers right from the start. This amplifies the impact of what we are about to see. After they are rounded up by the police, Kevin, Anton, Yusuf, Raymond and Korey are separately interrogated by the police, some of them in the absence of their guardian. After endless hours of playing “good cop, bad cop” with the kids, they finally coerce a confession out of everyone against each other.
The second episode picks up six months after the arrest of the Central Park Five and follows the hearing of their cases which take place in two clusters. The prosecution smarts its way into that and pairs them according to what serves their interest best. After a round of presenting and contesting evidence, the jury finally finds the teenagers guilty and send them to prison. All of them (excluding Korey) are sent to juvie. The third episode deals with their years in the correctional facility and the irreparable damage done to their lives that linger even after they are allowed to walk the streets. The fourth episode focuses on Korey’s sentence, his experience in the prison and how he manages to keep himself together in the worst circumstances.
‘When They See Us’ is a perfect punch that society needs in its gut to be reminded of the racial injustice in the world. It could have easily been a longer series, but DuVernay decided to keep it short and sharp. Well-plotted storyline allowed every episode to be crisp, and by taking one step at a time, they increased the impact of it. The top-notch acting, especially by the young cast, deserves special applause. Fear, confusion, regret, loss of innocence- there is no emotion that their eyes couldn’t convey. Jharrel Jerome, who plays the role of Korey, was on another level here.
From a friend in need to becoming a victim of “wrong place, wrong time”, from trying to save his own skin to the one who pays the heaviest price for it all, Jerome’s portrayal of Korey’s various phases is heart-breaking. Perhaps this is why his section was planned to be the last of them all. While a single episode covers the story of four others, one whole episode is dedicated to Korey. His story allows a perfect wrap-up to the case. When they are finally exonerated, it is Korey that takes away a great chunk of our sympathy.
‘When They See Us’ is not a perfect ride. It falters at times, and slacks and risks losing the interest of the viewer. But these times are mostly clustered in one episode and are too few to cause too much harm. Whatever flaws it has, the finale patches them up and the show leaves us with the effect that the director had intended to. In the world where accepting and celebrating cultural diversity is more important than ever, this series does nothing but exert its importance.