When They See Us, tells the story of the Central Park Five told in a four-part mini series. Ava DuVernay directed this heartbreaking show based on the true events of five boys being sent to prison for a crime they did not commit in the spring of 1989. Essentially, this show highlights the role of systemic racism within the criminal justice system – a really light show to sit through in one sitting.
First recommendation for this show – space out viewing. Each episode is well done with great performances. However, the content of each episode will weigh on you a bit. While the story of the Central Park Five is intriguing, it’s a lot to process. Between the brutality of the crime against the jogger to the suffering of the five boys, you’ll walk away with many feelings. In addition to the feelings, there are just many pieces of the story to think through and digest.
The show begins the night of the attack on the jogger, the night five boys were living their normal lives. In the morning, their lives begin to change for the worse. When the jogger was being violently attacked, a large group of boys were in the park also, some annoying other people in the park, some just walking around. Regardless of what these young people were doing, many of them were brought into custody of the police with no relation to the jogger attack. Snap judgements are made by the prosecutor in the department and suddenly a hand full of the boys who were in the park become suspects in the assault on the jogger. One thing leads to another and the five boys are brought in for questioning individually and their trajectory in life is forever altered.
The five boys were coerced into giving false testimony by the detectives questioning them (minors aren’t actually supposed to be questioned without a parent/guardian/lawyer present). Then there’s a prosecutor who is convinced they are guilty, and folks, we then have a story of the justice system being on its nonsense. Because these boys happened to be in Central Park at the same time of the crime, the prosecutor and her detectives assume that five Black and brown boys must be guilty. The boys, all 16 and younger, were assumed to have beaten, raped, and left a woman for dead in the park. Boys who all said they didn’t even see the woman out running, yet somehow they ended up in prison for the rest of their teenage years and some of their early adulthood. In 2002, someone came forward and confessed to the crime of which the five had been convicted, and the five men were exonerated. Happy ending, right? Not so much. Years of those men’s lives had been unfairly taken away because nobody in law enforcement wanted to believe they were telling the truth. While they were exonerated and granted $41 million in their civil rights settlement with the state of New York, that does not give them back their time nor does it account for the horrors they endured in the US prison system and in society. People called for their deaths. People harassed them and their families. All because people in power couldn’t get over their own implicit bias to do a proper investigation.
I want to say this extremely well done docu-series was so impactful and moving in my life. I want to say that it really shined a light onto the injustice minorities face in this country. I want to say that everyone needs to go and watch this. What I can say is, this great piece of work did not show me anything I didn’t already know about how Black and brown people are mistreated in this country. Black and brown people already know that they’re bottom of the totem pole and will be treated as criminals. Yes, it offers representation in the media of Black and brown stories told by Black and brown people. However, the story itself, is one that we all know a little too well, which is why it’s so important for white folks to watch. I know, that’s a big call out, but obviously we haven’t made much progress since 1989 in terms of race relations.