Editor’s Note: Although this review covers previously known facts about the Central Park Five case, it does not include intimate and specific plot details about Netflix miniseries When They See Us.
Antron McCray. Kevin Richardson. Yusef Salaam. Raymond Santana. Korey Wise. You may not recognize these five names. But after watching Ava DuVernay’s powerful new Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, you will.
Dubbed by the media as the “Central Park Five,” these men were just young boys, between the ages of 14-16, in 1989 when they were falsely accused of raping a young white woman jogger in Central Park. By renaming the limited series When They See Us (formerly titled Central Park Five), prolific director Ava DuVernay seeks to reclaim the narrative that was told for so many years about these young boys who spent between 7-14 years behind bars before being exonerated by DNA evidence and a confession from the actual rapist. These men who have always maintained their innocence have since named themselves the Exonerated Five.
In DuVernay’s powerful series of four episodes, she makes the case of how everyone–the media, the criminal justice system, America as a whole–failed these boys. The first episode begins in the spring of 1989, when five teenagers Antron (Caleel Harris), Kevin (Asante Blackk), Yusef (Ethan Herisse), Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez) and Korey (formerly Kharey) Wise (Jharrel Jerome) ventured into the park with a large group of other teen boys, not knowing that their lives were about to change forever. When They See Us provides an unflinching look at 25 years of their lives, from when they are first questioned about the horrific rape of the young woman up until they were exonerated of all charges in 2002 and reached a settlement with the city of New York in 2014.
When They See Us is DuVernay’s masterpiece. She directs the series, accompanied by equally-stellar cinematography from Bradford Young, who was in the same role with DuVernay for Selma. The director also co-wrote all of the episodes, alongside writers Attica Locke, Robin Swicord, Julian Breece and Michael Starrbury.
DuVernay’s lens is one of contrasts: the soft and the rigid. She pivots between the sweet, naiveté in the boys’ young faces and the ugly rage and hatred in the eyes of the police officers who viewed them as “animals.” When the audience sees them, we see babies who are tired, terrified, hungry, hurting and confused, who just want to go home. When the officers see them, they see disposability, a means to an end–bestial beings who, if they didn’t rape the young woman in question probably would harm someone else anyway. The media didn’t question that view. Most people didn’t question that view. When They See Us, then, is as much about these boys as it is about American society.
Although the cast as a whole turns in outstanding performances during the entire duration of the miniseries, it is Jharrel Jerome who stands out as the crown jewel of When They See Us. The final episode of the series is all Korey’s story of being in maximum security prison for more than 13 years, beginning at the age of 16, and it’s a powerful showcase for the 21-year-old Moonlight star. Jerome’s performance as both teen and adult Korey is so stunning and impressive that, if everything is right in the world, it should immediately thrust him into the conversation for Best Actor in a Limited Series or TV Movie as a frontrunner. Although it may have initially seemed like just an interesting choice to have Jerome play both the teen and young adult versions of Wise, after watching the series it is clear why DuVernay made that decision. But all of the teen versions of the characters, from the baby-faced meekness of Blackk as Kevin Richardson to the innocence of Rodriguez as Raymond Santana, these young actors shine the brightest. Both Jovan Adepo as the older version of Antron McCray and Freddy Miyares as the adult Raymond Santana are both of particular note, as well, delving into the struggles that the men had when returning to society.
Prior to this miniseries, Ken Burns directed a well-done but criminally underseen documentary in 2012, The Central Park Five, before the city of New York settled with the men. The case has also been of common interest to true crime enthusiasts, who have for years been fascinated with not only what happened to the jogger, but also how the city and police department botched the case so badly. Among the many new perspectives that the series brings into focus are everyone and everything that was impacted by the case and its decision, including the family members of the accused. As for those family members, there are particular standout performances from Michael K. Williams as a father unable to come to grips with this role in his son’s circumstances, Aunjanue Ellis as a mother determined to uphold a particular image of her son, Kylie Bunbury as a sister torn between what she thinks is best and what her frantic, shaken-up little brother needs; and Niecy Nash as a mother thrust into an unspeakable situation by finding her 16-year-old son in Rikers Island. The performances by these veterans, most of which are not lengthy in nature, leave lasting impressions on viewers despite what they may have known about this miscarriage of justice prior to watching the series.
Given recent news headlines, it’s no secret that Felicity Huffman knows how to cut corners, though it makes her performance as head of the police sex crimes division Linda Fairstein all the eerier. Vera Farmiga turns in an excellent performance as a conflicted prosecutor, who at the end of the day, still prosecutes these boys with flimsy evidence. Famke Janssen is convincing in the shoes of the homicide detective, introduced early on in the series before returning in the final episode at a pivotal moment. But what will probably strike a chord the most with viewers is how the real-life people who perpetuated these charges about the young boys for all of these years have faced little to no penalties, despite taking years of life away from these men. Best-selling authors, Ivy League professors, retired detectives, and the President of the United States, whose actual on-camera interviews condemning these boys to the death penalty features prominently in the first half of the miniseries.
When They See Us is undeniably tough to watch. It becomes even tougher once the spotlight is shone on Korey Wise and the torture that he went through, year after year and prison after prison. It’s uncomfortable, not just because of the anguish that these boys suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system, but because it calls into question what the audience was doing in 1989 when all of this happened. Still, this is necessary viewing. We owe it to these men to listen to their stories and pay as much attention to their exoneration and the celebration of their survival as was paid to their unjust condemnation. Because we cannot avoid these mistakes in our future without first reckoning with our past, When They See Us is a story that needs to be watched and heard, loud and clear.
When They See Us debuts on Netflix May 31.