By Lucy Mangan
May 31, 2019
Director Ava DuVernay doesn’t spend long establishing the normality of the lives of young teenagers Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana. Where others might have chosen to insist upon it, she takes it as a given – as the boys did, before that fateful night in 1989 when they joined a crowd of other boys streaming to the park from Harlem and became, through a nightmarish concatenation of events, for ever subsumed under a collective identity. They are the Central Park Five.
When They See Us is a dramatised account of how the five young boys came to be arrested, convicted and sentenced for raping and beating almost to death Trisha Meili – “the Central Park jogger” – a young white woman whose poor, battered body was found that same night.
All the initial signs point to a single attacker having dragged her off the path into undergrowth. But when the head of the DA’s sex crimes unit, Linda Fairstein, hears that “a bunch of turds” have been arrested elsewhere in the park, a new narrative begins to form. Their night out is recharacterised as “a rampage”, the boys as “animals” moving in “a pack”, hellbent on destruction. As with the early establishment of the boys’ normality, Fairstein and her team are never explicitly labelled as racist. (Fairstein is played by Felicity Huffman, whose own recent court case, which many have been seen as a function of white privilege, adds a certain frisson to the casting.) Their prejudice is simply embedded in every assumption, a tacit agreement among all the white adults that the boys are the obvious suspects, that they “must” have done it. Fairstein breathes certainties like air.
An all but random list of possible suspects from the group is drawn up by police who fan out through Harlem to find them. Korey’s name is not even on the list, but he accompanies his friend Yusef to the police station because he reckons his mother will be cross if he doesn’t.
The disorientation of the boys during their hours of unattended, unrecorded questioning – without food, without toilet breaks, Kevin’s face swollen from the blow he received from a police officer in the park – results in false confessions from them all. (Yusef’s mother manages to reach and remove him before he signs anything, but the damage is done.) The second episode focuses on the trial, where an absence of physical evidence and witnesses, and the claims of coercive action by the police, are not enough to move a judge and jury who breathe the same certainties as Fairstein.
Prosecuting attorney Elizabeth Lederer is shown to have her doubts. When DNA evidence from the crime scene fails to place the boys there, she offers them a plea bargain. But they will not admit to something they didn’t do. They are all convicted and serve between six and 13 years in prison, with Korey tried and sentenced as an adult.
The penultimate episode concentrates on the four men who emerge from their juvenile sentences and the obstacles to restarting life as a known felon and registered sex offender. Yusef wants to be a teacher but is forbidden by his record. Raymond can’t get a job and eventually turns to drug dealing. Kevin and Antron get by, but no more. As Yusef’s barber puts it: “Once they got you, they keep you.” The final episode focuses on the particular suffering of Korey in various adult prisons, most of them hundreds of miles from his home. It ends with the confession from the real rapist – unprompted, unsought, a matter of pure chance – and the men’s exoneration in 2002.
What could easily become agitprop resists the temptation. It is a dense, fast-moving series that examines not just the effects of systemic racism but the effects of all sorts of disenfranchisement (though you could argue they all have that same root cause) on people with the boys’ background. The lack of money that leads to inadequate lawyers and mothers unable to visit their sons incarcerated in distant places. The lifetime of fear and vulnerability that causes one parent to encourage his son to sign the confession so they can leave the station and sort things out later. The powerlessness in the face of an authority that doesn’t look like you or care about you.
The performances, from the young actors and the veterans alike, are uniformly astonishing – especially from the central five, Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Marquis Rodriguez and Jharrel Jerome, most of whom are just a few years older than the teens they are playing. They capture the innocence, in all senses, of children, and the permanence of its loss. It feels like a great privilege to see them.