By and large, Netflix deals in providing bingeworthy original streaming content that functions as comfort food. To that end, there really is something to satisfy everyone, from apocalyptic zombie fare (Black Summer is a huge hit) to romantic comedies (so many of them) to trash TV like (You and What/If) and true crime, to name a few genres. When it comes to the latter, Netflix has dabbled heavily in the sensational, including the Ted Bundy biopic starring Zac Efron, but the streaming giant moves toward a very different brand of true crime with Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, which is decidedly not comfort food or sensationalist in nature. Instead, the four-part limited series bluntly chronicles the hellish nightmare faced by the so-called Central Park Five.
In April 1989, five teenagers (ranging from ages 14-16) of color were arrested and charged with a host of crimes, including the rape and attempted murder of Trisha Meili. She retained no memory of the night when she was attacked jogging in Central Park, and no physical evidence could link these young men to the crime. Still, all five were convicted, even though none of their DNA was found on the scene, due to coerced confessions in every sense of the term.
You probably don’t recognize any of these figures — Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise — by name, but DuVernay (who created, co-wrote, and directed here) makes it her mission to imprint their journeys through the legal system upon viewers. What results isn’t easy to watch, but it’s valuable viewing and presented accessibly enough to pull the audience along to witness ghastly mechanisms of corruption. These teenagers became victims of a rigged police and legal system and were finally exonerated many years later in 2002. By that time, the actions of police and a district attorney, who backed into their desired outcome, had not only mercilessly crushed these defendants, but also the lives of their families. (Our current president infamously took out full-page ads in New York City newspapers calling for the five men to receive the death penalty, and to this day refuses to apologize for it.)
While co-writing, DuVernay’s pen transforms into a razor-sharp weapon. Various characters continually claim that “justice has been served” while attempting to both prosecute these young men and keep them behind bars even when it becomes startlingly clear that they’re not guilty. It’s an appalling sight, and that’s only one aspect of how this project tackles racism and the notion of history being penned by those in power. This isn’t exactly lighthearted weekend binging fare for everyone, but it does belong in almost everyone’s queue. Pencil some time in for this project at some point. Here’s why.
The four episodes put a twisted version of a perverted procedural on display for all, and DuVernay’s command of the material puts a searing spin on a case that lit up New York City’s swirling paranoia. Public pressure demanded justice in whatever form with the five young men largely becoming forgotten victims until the unlikely development that eventually led to their exoneration. As the horror begins, the wrongfully convicted boys find themselves scapegoated for crimes that they didn’t commit and used as emblems to fuel a city and nation’s paranoia. As a result, all five young men intensely suffer a loss of youth and innocence. Like Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), who goes from dreaming of playing trumpet professionally and covering his mother with a blanket to walking through chilly Central Park with his friends. In a matter of minutes, he’s unconscious on the ground after being beaten by a cop.
Throughout the night of the attack, the interrogations, and the trial, When They See Us takes its audience through gut-wrenching installments, but then it gets worse. The prison sentences kick into gear with the final half of the series, and one fully sees how countless lives were shattered by the handling of this case. Particularly in the case of Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), who was funneled into adult correctional facilities where he was abused and beaten by fellow inmates and prison staff, we see some of the story’s most brutal atrocities go down.
DuVernay fleshes out her cast with many recognizable faces, including Joshua Jackson as a public defender and Vera Farmiga (in a Marsha Clark wig) as one of the only DA staffers to question the prosecution’s shady tactics. John Leguizamo makes a heartbreaking turn as the father of Raymond Santana Jr., who finds that life on parole continues to throw up barriers to a viable future. And Felicity Huffman steps into the heels of the most irredeemable systemic figure — Linda Fairstein, the head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan DA’s office — of this retelling.
Though unsettling to watch, When They See Us is another necessary reminder of the corruption and the flaws America’s criminal justice system is sometimes riddled with, particularly in cases dealing with people of color.
‘When They See Us’ begins streaming on Netflix on May 31.