The Central Park Five. For years, those words have been used as the shorthand for the men who received prison sentences for the assault and rape of Trisha Meili in New York’s Central Park. It was 13 years until those false charges were eventually vacated, but the phrase continued to be used to refer to the group, even giving a title to Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary film about the case. Ava DuVernay’s blistering, powerful four-part drama retelling the events opts for a different title, When They See Us – and that title is a statement of intent for a series that shines a light on a horrifying injustice, and makes sure each victim is treated as a person.
The five men are Antron (Jovan Adepo), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Yusef Salaam (Chris Chalk), Raymond Santana (Freddy Miyares) and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome). When we meet them, they don’t know each other, but they all wind up in the same park on the same night in 1989, the same night when a jogger was raped – and that coincidence was enough for the police to arrest them, despite the fact that the evidence pointed to a single attacker, despite the fact that the boys were in a different part of the park, despite the fact that their purported confessions all conflicted with each other, saying entirely different things.
Episode 1 is dedicated to the night in question, specifically picking apart the cruel way that the police coerced statements from the teens over one gruelling evening – with false promises that saying they did it (or that the others did) would enable them to go home. Episode 2 relives the legal case, with all of its corruption, politics and public manipulation. Then, the show highlights the struggle of Raymond, Kevin, Antron and Yusef as they return to the normal world years later.
That chronological structure gives When They See Us a breathtakingly comprehensive scale that’s documentary-like in detail. Even as each episode flows from one genre and setting to another (from horror to legal thriller to prison drama) there’s a unifying quality in its tone and focus, re-enacting the specific steps of events with an alarming understanding of prejudice built into almost every level of society – from the way that the journalists reporting the attack reached for the most sensationalist narrative possible (“Their enemies were rich… I need another word for emphasis…” “Their enemies were white.”) to the way that each boy’s parents are just as scared as they are, and how that lived-in fear prompts them to side with the police, actually encouraging the false confessions just to get their kids out of the station.
As each fragment of inequity stacks up, it becomes more enraging and maddening to watch; every cumulative, essential minute drags everyday disenfranchisement out into the unblinking spotlight. “You have been spoon-fed a story, and you’re lapping it up,” says one of their lawyers (played with rousing conviction by Joshua Jackson) in the trial. “But we’re not here for the story. We’re here for the facts.” Even with smart legal counsel on their side, though, counsel that explicitly highlights the deception and falsified evidence to the jury, the criminal justice machine can’t be halted; individual trials for the boys seems like the best shot for their defence, but that only plays into the hands of the prosecution, as they can pick and choose which parts of the tape-recorded confessions to use for each boy. “Why do they do us like this?” asks one, after they’ve all been duped into incriminating each other. “What other way they ever do us?” comes the reply.
All five actors are heartbreakingly, anger-inducingly good, from Adepo, delivering on the promise shown in Fences and The Leftovers, to Miyares as Santana, whose difficulty in trying to get a job given all the boxes he has to tick on every application form is infuriating. The adults are equally good, with John Leguizamo a particular standout as Raymond Santana Sr., trying to balance supporting his house-bound son with the apprehension and disrespect of his new wife. On the other side of the case, Felicity Huffman (of Desperate Housewives and, most recently, a real life courtroom) is excellent as the loathsome Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor who led the case against the teens with an unquestioning, ingrained racism. Even the least detestable attorney, Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga), can only offer the boys a plea bargain, which would still require them to lie and say they’re guilty.
Throughout, DuVernay ensures that we always approach events from the boys’ perspectives, keeping them front and centre of their own stories. That pays off most of all in the final episode, a feature-length chapter that’s devoted solely to Korey Wise, played with jaw-dropping clarity and vulnerability by Jharrel Jerome. Korey wasn’t even on the police’s list of suspects, only getting arrested (and bullied and blackmailed into a confession) because he had the compassion to accompany his friend, Yusef, to the station. The episode journeys with him from that shocking starting point through almost two decades of prison, years full of abuse, isolation and trauma, all of which could be the basis of another TV series in its own right.
The show’s conclusion is an overwhelming dose of catharsis. And yet even then, that sense of relief and release can’t dampen the rage sparked by their clinically documented mistreatment; we’re shown early on that this systemic racism pays the damage forward, as the boys learn to self-exclude, deciding they never want to go near a lawyer or courtroom again. The briefest mention of Donald Trump, who in 1989 declared that this pack of teenagers should be executed, is all DuVernay needs to do to make her point, without overshadowing the immediate, important experience of these boys (the pitch-perfect period detail, too, is subtle but never distracting). 30 years on from their arrest, this is a long overdue chance for the world to see The Central Park Five as they really are – a sensitive, gripping, deeply human piece of storytelling that gives them a voice and reclaims their identities as individuals for generations to come.
When They See Us is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.