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.