The justice system in the United States of America is supposed to operate as you are deemed innocent until proven guilty. However, what happens for Black people is they are deemed guilty until proven innocent. That is exactly what happened with Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., and Korey Wise, who were dubbed the “Central Park Five” by the media.
They were five kids, who ranged in age from 14 to 16 years old, charged with the rape and assault of a White girl in Central Park. These kids had nothing to do with the assault, and were in a completely different part of the park when it occurred. They were found by the police the night of the assault, and were immediately arrested. The police proceeded to interrogate them for hours on end, depriving them of food, water, legal counsel, and seeing their parents. Through all of this, they were ultimately coerced into confessing to a crime they never committed.
When They See Us is a four-part limited series on Netflix that tells Kevin, Antron, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey’s story. It is co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay, the masterful director behind Selma (2014) and 13th (2016). Brought to life by an incredible ensemble of actors, When They See Us chronicles the police interrogations, the trial, the verdict, and the aftermath. As one would expect from a filmmaker of DuVernay’s caliber, this is an incredibly emotional and gut-wrenching series that excels on every level.
I remember in elementary school, there was an incident involving another kid that I had nothing to do with, but another student, for whatever reason, told the principal that I had been involved. I was called into her office, and she proceeded to lay into me about it. I claimed many times that I didn’t know what she was talking about, and I had nothing to do with it, but she ignored this and persisted. She went as far as to say that my parents should be ashamed of me. I was an absolute wreck, and in that moment I felt so completely helpless. I didn’t do this thing she thought I did, but no matter how many times I told her, she just did not believe me.
What happened to me that day was a fraction of the severity of the situation Kevin, Antron, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey experienced. I got to go home after it; they didn’t. I understand what it feels like when you are not believed and it is a horrible position to be in, especially when the rest of your life is at stake. When They See Us perfectly conveys that feeling of helplessness, and directly puts you in these kids’ position.
Asante Blackk (Kevin), Caleel Harris (Antron), Ethan Herisse (Yusef), Marquis Rodriquez (Raymond), and Jharrel Jermone (Korey) give the series the weight it has. They have to sell the audience immediately on the absolute horror of what is happening to them. We are first introduced to them as kids simply having fun one night, being exactly what they are — kids. Then, everything takes a turn that will change their lives forever. These actors give such emotionally authentic reactions to the situation they’re in, you instantly see how completely terrifying it is.
The casting in general for this series is absolutely phenomenal. Casting directors Aisha Coley, Billy Hopkins, Ashley Ingram, and Ian Subsara had an incredibly difficult challenge in front of them. They had to find five child actors who could not only carry the weight of leading the series, but also be able to hit all of the deeply nuanced emotional beats regarding such a severe subject matter. A lot of credit for the brilliance of the performances do go to DuVernay, but it begins with the casting. These four casting directors found the right kids to properly handle the material.
The series also has an incredibly strong supporting cast, including Michael K. Williams, John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash, and Felicity Huffman. These supporting characters offer a wide range of different kinds of people. Williams plays Antron’s father, whose fatal advice would determine the rest of his son’s life. Leguizamo plays Yusef’s father, who acts as a rock for his son in his hardest moments. Nash plays Korey’s mother, with whom he has a mixed relationship. She is supportive of Korey and fights for him, but through flashbacks we see different sides of his mother, namely her transphobia regarding Korey’s sister.
Felicity Huffman gives a chilling performance as the series’ most sinister character. She plays Linda Fairstein, the head of the sex crimes unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office at the time of the assault. Fairstein was feeling pressure from her superiors that a series of rapes had gone on the past few months with no leads as to the assaulter. Without any clear evidence or proper investigation, Fairstein targeted these kids and insisted they were guilty. She essentially gave her team the go-ahead to do everything in their power to make the kids’ stories align to “prove” their guilt.
Watching this series, the prevalence of systemic racism within the police department and the justice system is overwhelming. Fairstein immediately decided these kids were guilty and forced the details and evidence to fit that narrative. It didn’t matter what other evidence contradicting that popped up; she was set on these five kids being the assaulters and she did everything she could to force it on them. This is not how the justice system is supposed to work. Not even close.
On Netflix, Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now is a panel discussion with the cast hosted by Oprah Winfrey. The first half of the hour-long discussion is interesting, but it’s when the real Central Park Five (now the Exonerated Five, as referenced by Winfrey) come on stage, the show really takes shape. Winfrey asks them some tough questions, and it’s fascinating to listen to their perspectives on the series.
During this, Ava DuVernay expresses how she ultimately made the series for the five of them. While the positive reviews and fan praise are great, she really wanted to tell their story so that they would no longer have to. Judging from their responses, it seems DuVernay has succeeded in this. I highly recommend watching this special after finishing the series. It hammers in the reality of what happened a little more, and it’s powerful to listen to the real Kevin, Antron, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey about what they experienced.
Overall, When They See Us is a must-watch for people looking to learn more about the history of police brutality and systemic racism in this country. It portrays one of the most horrifying cases of injustice in the history of the United States, told beautifully by Ava DuVernay. She expertly captures the distress, the heartbreak, and the tragedy these kids withstood. The performances across the board are brilliant, and give the series its feeling of authenticity. I implore everyone to watch this series, because it is nothing short of exceptional.
When They See Us, and Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now, are available to stream on Netflix.
Author: Nathanael Molnár, originally published [6/25/2020]