The following is a series review of When They See Us — Created by Ava DuVernay.
Before I saw Ava DuVernay’s incredibly important and overwhelmingly powerful mini-series When They See Us, I never knew anything about the Central Park jogger case or the so-called Central Park Five. At the end of the series, I felt out of breath. I needed some air. DuVernay’s series is another excellent 2019 limited series true story that is so very bleak and absolutely infuriating, but it is also just as gripping as it is tough to watch.
Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is based on the aforementioned 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which a 28-year-old woman was assaulted and raped in Central Park. Police alleged that the crime was committed by several youths who had entered the park late at night. Officers apprehended four young men — Yusuf Salaam (played by Chris Chalk and Ethan Herisse), Antron McCray (played by Jovan Adepo and Caleel Harris), Kevin Richardson (played by Justin Cunningham and Asante Blackk) and Raymond Santana (played by Freddy Miyares and Marquis Rodriguez) — and proceeded to interrogate them intensely until they had been coerced into making false confessions. A fifth individual, Korey Wise (played by Jharrel Jerome), was later apprehended and forced into making similar confessions.
Unfortunately, the so-called Central Park Five were unable to convince the jury of their innocence and they were all convicted of the crime. DuVernay’s series gives us these lengthy, enraging, and moving scenes of young men being kicked and bossed around by violent officers. She gives us plenty of the trial scenes, and then she tells us how these men’s lives developed within and out of prison. It is a tough show to binge-watch, as it had me on the verge of tears multiple times, but I just couldn’t stop watching it. I needed to know what happened to these wrongfully-imprisoned men.
This outstanding limited series features these incredibly uncomfortable scenes of young men being pushed around or threatened into incriminating themselves with false statements or confessions. It broke my heart to see how they were manipulated, how even parents were pushed around by officers, or, in one extreme case, how a parent angrily coerced their child into making a false confession because of the inevitability of his situation. It is an incredibly bleak series that points out just how discouraging, unjust, and discriminatory the judicial system is.
DuVernay and her crew masterfully framed the interrogation scenes in a way that would make the audience feel cornered. This is especially apparent in the interrogation scenes with Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise. Later, in the trial, the filmmakers paid attention to the effect of different perspectives. During the closing statements, every attorney is framed in a low-angle shot that makes the attorneys seem powerful and the young men, whose lives are on the line, all seem inferior, infinitesimal, or barely perceptible to the judicial system and the attorneys involved. Their inferiority is emphasized in an episode that also perfectly points out just how culpable the media is, as well as how parents were demoralized by the system. The series points fingers at the media and the judicial system. It even goes as far as to say everything is inevitable and that defending the young men is a lost cause in a discriminatory American judicial system. DuVernay achieves this by emphasizing certain parents’ absence.
Where I thought the series lost its way a little bit was in the way it focused on the Central Park jogger case’s connection to Donald Trump, who spoke out against the young men. Though the characters’ frustration with Trump feels appropriate, When They See Us is a little bit too contrived when it tries to be timely, as is best emphasized by taking an isolated look at this unnatural and artificial line of dialogue: “His fifteen minutes of fame will be over soon.” Also, I must admit that I had a tough time connecting to the grown-up versions of the characters, with one exception, and the third episode therefore wasn’t as effective, for me, even though Raymond Santana’s descent was heartbreaking to see.
But Korey Wise is the aforementioned one exception. DuVernay dedicates almost the entirety of a feature-length final episode to Korey Wise, whose imprisonment is incredibly sad and infuriating. Korey Wise is played beautifully by Jharrel Jerome, who is, thus, the only actor to play both the young and adult version of the character. I first noticed Jerome in Barry Jenkins’ outstanding Moonlight, and Jerome is amazing in his When They See Us-role that allows for what is likely to be his breakthrough performance.
The outstanding Jerome and the rest of the main cast is aided by a strong supporting cast that includes Vera Farmiga, Felicity Huffman, Joshua Jackson, Michael K. Williams, and Logan Marshall-Green among others. Williams has an extraordinary but bleak and memorable scene in the first episode. The scene where he coerces his son into a false confession was heartbreaking and depressing as it pointed its finger at American prejudices and argued for the idea of an inevitable outcome in a discriminatory judicial system. Any actor would be proud to have that scene on their acting reel.
DuVernay’s limited series is a story about racial profiling and a discriminatory American judicial system, and, based on what I’ve seen of hers, When They See Us would’ve been the director’s best work were it not for her outstanding documentary 13th from 2016. But, once again, Ava DuVernay has put the spotlight on important issues in Netflix content that will educate a global audience. But it isn’t just a history lesson, it is an outstanding must-watch television show.
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.