On June 13th, Netflix shared that Ava DuVernay’s limited series When They See Us had been the platform’s most-watched series every day since it premiered on May 31st. An impressive two weeks does not outweigh the three decades that separate the show from April 19th, 1989, the day five boys from Harlem were forced into a national scandal.
DuVernay’s series is about the so-called “Central Park Five:” five men — then boys — who were wrongfully convicted of brutally assaulting a young woman in Manhattan’s famous park. They each spent between six and fourteen years in New York state prisons. Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise. Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time, Queen Sugar) has set out to make sure they are known. More than a Netflix series, When They See Us is a piece of activist work. DuVernay tells this story not only to honor the Five’s experience, but to open the eyes of the public and inspire action. The series illuminates exactly how—and to whom—the U.S. criminal justice system is doing wrong. When They See Us tells the Five’s story in four parts, each arresting and heartbreaking and eye-opening in its own right.
Part One documents the traumatic interrogations of Kevin (Asante Blackk), 14, Antron (Caleel Harris), 15, Yusef (Ethan Harisse), 15, and Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez), 14, all coerced into confessing to a crime they know nothing about. White prosecutor Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) quickly goes from calling them “suspects” to presuming the boys guilty. Meanwhile, detectives quite literally drag Korey (Jharrel Jerome), 16, into the narrative. Korey went to the station to look out for his friend Yusef and became a target in the prosecution’s case.
Part Two is the trials, which are tense and loaded. DuVernay forces her viewers to look the five boys in the eyes as guilty convictions are announced. Then she cuts to Kevin, who plays a mournful note on his trumpet in the middle of a Harlem street, a pair of handcuffs on the instrument.
In Part Three, DuVernay elegantly intersperses incarceration and its aftermath. Adult Antron (Jovan Adepo), Raymond (Freddy Miyares), Yusef (Chris Chalk), and Kevin (Justin Cunningham) return home to Harlem. They struggle to find employment and form relationships. Released from prison, DuVernay makes clear that these four men are not fully free.
Part Four lays out Korey’s unique suffering in the adult prison system. The real Korey Wise told DuVernay that the boys were not five, but “four plus one.” Part Four shows DuVernay’s dedication to telling Korey’s story apart from the rest. Korey is the only boy played by the same actor from start to finish: trapped in a place no child should be, Jharrel Jerome transforms before our eyes until 2002 when, over a decade after the fateful night, the five men’s convictions were overturned. DuVernay celebrates the freedom they gained: the five boys, now men, raise their clasped hands in the air. DuVernay sets the camera below their waists so the viewer looks up at them, Korey in the center. They stand triumphant.
DuVernay sets out not just to tell a captivating story or make an impressive piece of art, but to tell essential stories and make a political statement. DuVernay stands up for her people: all her work examines the black American experience, unfair and unequal as it is. This is true of her documentary 13th, a searing examination of mass incarceration in the United States. This is true of A Wrinkle in Time, her adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved children’s book, where Meg Murry is a young black girl. This is especially true of When They See Us, a piece that lays out how the United States’ deeply entrenched racism oppresses and marginalizes young black boys to the extent that their boyhood is stolen from them. DuVernay’s activist stance is clear in the project’s title: rather than “Central Park Five,” she chose a new title that reflects her intent of humanizing the men and shifting the blame.
What takes DuVernay’s work from a film to activism is its intention and scope. When They See Us is not just a piece of entertainment. The primary intention behind the series is to illuminate injustice. When They See Us, more than anything else, serves to educate its audience about a social and political injustice. Through the lens of the five mens’ individual and collective stories, DuVernay unpacks what it means to be black in America. She demands the guilty institutions and the white general public take up the collective responsibility for reform.
Though she stays tightly focused on the five boys’ experiences, DuVernay also depicts the systematic issues that their stories reflect. Part Two is as much an indictment of the press as it is an indictment of the court. DuVernay includes news reports playing over radio stations throughout Harlem: “Three of the attackers from the Central Park jogger case go before a Manhattan jury today.” DuVernay’s careful details highlight the pervasive nature of structural racism. She illuminates the bias in the criminal justice system and all the barriers that prevent black people from living freely, from racial profiling to income inequality.
DuVernay’s work beyond the screen is what really makes her an activist. She engages with viewers on Twitter everyday, sharing the art of other black creators, talking about her work with the Five, and discussing the complicated web of bias that needs dismantling. Korey, Antron, Yusef, Kevin, and Raymond are not only shown at the series’s conclusion, but they were present on DuVernay’s New York City set, active participants in the filmmaking process.
DuVernay is an activist in the way that filmmakers like Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins are activists. She is an activist in the way Ta-Nehisi Coates is an activist when he condemns how America relentlessly destroys black bodies in Between the World and Me. She follows in the footsteps of W.E.B. Du Bois, who approached his work not just as a scholar but as a scholar-activist. Like them, DuVernay is on a mission to change the landscape of her industry and the world around her. Like them, DuVernay wants black struggle to be seen.
When They See Us feels like the pinnacle of DuVernay’s career, but it will doubtless be just one part of her continuing story. DuVernay sees inequity, uses her work to better understand it, and then uses her platform to advocate for change. She leverages film to make visible those who have long been invisible. Thanks to Ava DuVernay’s work, we should now know Korey, Antron, Yusef, Kevin, and Raymond as the Exonerated Five. Thanks to her, we know their names, their faces, and their stories. We see them, and we know exactly what needs to change.