This When They See Us review contains no spoilers except historical.
New York City was displaced over the past generation as gentrification became tourism friendly. The seeds of the changing face of the city come from the urban fears which gave rise to films like Taxi Driver and Death Wish. The 1980s saw a subway vigilante symbolize knee-jerk reactionaries to a nationwide audience. The decade ended on headlines of a horrifically callous rape in Central Park and teenage “wilding.” When They See Us is a long hard look at an open wound which finally offers something more than a scab as healing.
Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, Selma), who directed the four installments, and co-wrote the screenplay with Attica Locke, Robin Swicord, Michael Starrbury and Julian Breece, does an amazing job. Parts of When They See Us hurt to watch, physically hurt. Sequences in the film inflame us. The “Central Park Five,” the tag that branded the teenagers but only used once in the series, were Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome). When they were picked up, all they thought faced was “unlawful assembly.” Between the spring of 1989 and the end of their first trial, they became a nationwide symbol for urban evil. This film shows they are actually symbols of wrongful imprisonment. They were exonerated by DNA and a confession in 2002 and settled with the city of New York in 2014. Those are just the facts above the faces.
DuVernay magnificently transforms her actors. We’ve seen some of these players all their lives and they never look like this. They never carry themselves like they do here in this series. Actors are supposed to disappear into their roles, and often hide behind makeup and prosthetics, but there is more at work here than period haircuts. Michael K. Williams (The Wire) is utterly unrecognizable, not that we don’t remember who he is, but if we look for a single molecule of the Chalkie White character he played in Boardwalk Empire, we wouldn’t find it with a whole forensics team. John Leguizamo has never been more natural, pulling up someone in his family as emotional reference for sure. There is a little battle, verbal, he has with his father, which takes about eight seconds, where you can swear he’s lost in some fight he had with his own dad when he was a kid.
The teenagers are teenagers, kids, and there is not a second we don’t see them as kids. 14 to 16 year old kids, and not one of them seem to be acting so much as living the scenes. They are vulnerable, scared and completely real, and when we see a middle aged cop slapping one upside his head, we want to kick the pig in the nuts. The audience can put themselves into the mindset of the police, worked up to solve a horrific crime on a woman barely hanging to life, but then we see the faces of the suspects and recognize that’s all they are, suspects. None of them are convicted, and the rush to justice is frighteningly fast-tracked.
The acting is so natural, so subtly real, there are moments that feel like flubbed line reads rather than what they are: the way people really speak, and the stuttering pauses they take in between thoughts. Blair Underwood’s body language is remarkably lacking everything we associate with him. There is little self-assuredness as he discovers his own truths. There is a niceness to Joshua Jackson, who plays the most talkative of the defense attorneys, he can never get rid of. But when he sees he has been blindsided, right there in court in front of the judge, jury and the kids he’s sworn to protect from injustice, we feel it pushed out of him. He deflates like a balloon, without the rancor or anger or jealous hatred necessary to save himself.
Christopher Jackson, who defends Santana, won Emmys and Grammys and was up for a Tony Award, but there are moments where is fully lost up there in front of the other lawyers. He is indecisive and self-doubting and so real it looks like he’s being eavesdropped on rather than performing. And he’s playing a wannabe-politician, the kind of animal who is always performing. There are moments you want to smack Manhattan District Attorney’s prosecutor Linda Fairstein, played by Felicity Huffman, who made a lot of people feel that way about her personally when college admissions came out. No, she doesn’t like lose and will cheat to win. Niecy Nash is heartbreaking and infuriating as a mother who won’t give up on one son because she vehemently disowned his sibling.
The first chapter of When They See Us retells the Central Park jogger case with a focus on the rush to arrest. Trisha Meil was assaulted, raped and left for dead, while jogging after work. Hopes of recovery are slim. The police are ordered to interrogate each kid for as long as it takes to get something that can be edited into a confession. The cops turn the “witnesses” into “predators,” The District Attorney’s office’s head of sex crimes prosecutor, played by Vera Farmiga, turns “kids” into “animals.” The confessions are contradictory and filled with gaps. The police interrogations are overseen by Linda Farstein, played by Felicity Huffman. Antron’s father advises him to play along during the interrogations because he’d been to jail and was suckered into believing he could trust anything coming from anyone looking to convict anybody.
The Netflix miniseries doesn’t put the boys together in the same holding cell until an hour into the first installment. They’ve spent hours being interrogated, intimidated and smacked around by police and they each see the other young men they’ve fingered. They admit it straight up. “I told on you,” they tell each other. The second focuses on the trial and the nationwide attention. Donald Trump, who is shown talking about black privilege in historical footage, pay for full-page ads in the major New York newspapers calling to restore the death penalty for the Central Park 5. We see this through the eyes of the mothers.
The third fast tracks through four of the five characters’ incarceration, and the funny business they had to avoid, like writing each other. Kevin played the trumpet in school and his mother, played by Kylie Bunbury, can still picture him as a possible Miles. Yusef embraces the Islamic community. The kids’ time is served in a series of phone calls, visits and diminishing contact with the outside world. They are released into a second prison, home life as ex-cons. There are tensions at home, tensions at work. Employers can’t schedule them with other felons, their sexual predator status bars them from working too close with the public. People in the neighborhood they grew up in look at them sideways because they’ve been tagged as rapists, and forget about going below 110th Street.
Yusef, played by Chris Chalk as an adult, learns to use a computer. Antron, played as an adult by Jovan Adepo, comes home to a father he won’t forgive even as he sees the ravages inflected on both. Raymond, played as an adult by Freddy Miyares, comes home to his father’s new wife, played by Dascha Polanco of Orange Is The New Black. She calls him a “rapist” to his face, and he proves the system is the house that always wins as he winds up one a “back to jail” statistic.
Central Park looms in the all-too-approachable distance.
The final hour breaks format by filling in the details by focusing on one of the kids from conviction to dismissal. Korey Wise served 14-years in an adult prison because he has a fake ID saying he was older. Jharrel Jerome plays the young and older versions of Korey. DuVernay directed the prison system documentary The 13th, and is unrelenting on the conditions of survival and the ones from the parole board. You can’t get parole unless you admit to the crime. You can’t get a job if you’ve admitted to a felony. Korey learns to depend on solitary confinement after being repeated assaulted. He gets only minor relief from a fantasy sequence where he finishes the meal with his girlfriend Lisa instead of heading to the park.
The period is captured by the cinematography of Bradford Young (Selma, Arrival) and by the soundtrack of the streets. The musical score plays a very important and subversive role in the When They See Us. Even a happy chorus of “Happy Birthday” at a backyard celebration, sandwiched between giddy salsa, carries a melancholy in its melody having nothing to do with notes. At about the halfway point of the second installment, it appears DNA evidence clears the three suspects who have been separated in the trials. The music has an undertone of muted, anticipatory triumph for justice. A few minutes later, a key police statement throws so much doubt on the accused’s roles in the crime, it appears the case is closed. Then you realize it is only the halfway point of the second episode and you have to wonder what could possibly go so wrong to warrant two and a half more episodes, and the music agrees with you. It should have been a single full length film, and you would have been satisfied and left the theater feeling uplifted. But then DuVernay takes that away. It is a master stroke of directorial genius which is palpably painful.
The credits roll over the music of Nipsey Hussle, who was shot in the parking lot of his South Los Angeles store, Marathon Clothing, on March 31, 2019. The convictions of the Central Park 5 were vacated in 2002 after the confession of a jailed serial killer and rapist was confirmed by DNA. The exoneration, which was detailed in the 2012 documentary The Central Park Five from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, doesn’t get quite so much coverage as the conviction. The defendants won a $41 million settlement from New York City.
When They See Us is ultimately a never-coming-of-age story. The kids only get to be kids for about 10 minutes, while they’re on their way to the park. The innocence is shattered in the time it takes for Kevin to get his face bashed by a police helmet for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When They See Us sidesteps every cinematic tool of suspense, yet every frame is filled with tension and suspicion. It is blunt. It is wide-ranging, presaging an early fifteen minute rise in fame of real estate huckster Donald Trump. It is subtle. All the big repercussions are mirrored in small moments, gestures and exhales, something the audience doesn’t get the chance to do.