Week of 6/16/2019 – Show recommendation: When They See Us
Netflix recently took to Twitter announcing that their newest limited series, When They See Us, “…has been the most-watched series on Netflix in the US every day since it premiered on May 31” (Netflix US, Twitter). Rightfully so, because in just its first week since its release, this series has already made an everlasting impact by sparking important conversations on topics such as race and a corrupt justice system, specifically when it comes to people of color.
Director Ava DuVernay’s four-part series tells the heartbreaking and infuriating true story of the “Central Park Five”: Antron McCray (Caleel Harris / Jovan Adepo), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk / Justin Cunningham), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse / Chris Chalk), Raymond Santana Jr. (Marquis Rodriguez / Freddy Miyares), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome). In April 1989, they were accused, convicted, and later exonerated for the brutal rape and attack of a White woman jogger in New York’s Central Park. At just 14, 15, and 16 years of age, these teens, whom are also people of color, were physically and mentally coerced by law enforcement to essentially confess to a crime none of them committed. Rather than conducting a thorough investigation, the police and New York District Attorney, Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman), built a case around these teens with no DNA evidence, blood, or semen linking any of them to the crime. This series follows the teens to adulthood from when they are first questioned about the incident, through their exoneration in 2002, and the $41 million settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.
Ava DuVernay and co-writers deliver their strongest piece of work yet, uncovering and exposing a system fueled by racism, politics, and ignorance; a system in which Black and Brown people are automatically presumed guilty by White authorities. It is brought to light by the raw, dehumanizing, and disgusting language used by authorities to refer to the five boys, and if that isn’t enough, Donald Trump even makes a cameo, voicing his irrelevant opinion that the boys should have “received the death penalty.” His statement is both terrifying and infuriating, especially because we know the outcome of this case. He clearly lacks empathy for people of color / minorities. In a recent interview, DuVernay talks about the series’ impact saying, “I believe that we get to a place where people are intolerant of what is happening and demand change.” I can only hope the same because it is incredibly heartbreaking to know that this isn’t the only case in which people of color have been wrongfully accused. We have seen it too often in recent news, and it is time to uplift and give a voice to the silenced.
While the story is powerful in itself, the actor portrayals are really what drives the series home. While I can praise each teen actor for invoking such emotional and heartbreaking responses from me just within the first episode, Jharrel Jerome, who portrays the young and adult Korey Wise, takes on his role masterfully. The final episode of the series is told from Korey Wise’s perspective: at 16, the oldest of the group, Wise was tried as an adult and sentenced to Riker’s Island. At just 21 years of age, Jharrel Jerome showcases a performance of a lifetime; anything from his silence, his facial expressions, and his line delivery, uttered excellence and he deserves every award nomination coming his way. He truly did Korey Wise’s story justice.
On the other side of the spectrum, Felicity Huffman portrays the true villain of this story, Linda Fairstein. People always say, “if you hate the character, they’re a great actor.” Huffman (and every portrayal of law enforcement in this series) must be incredible actor(s), because I found myself wanting to climb through the screen and punch all of them in the face. It’s a shame that people like Linda Fairstein exist. While these boys were experiencing the worst moments in their lives, she was making money off crime novels, flaunting her wealth and privilege, and sticking to her delusional theories even when Matias Reyes confessed he was alone in committing the crime.
The Exonerated Five’s story spans for a quarter of a century: 25 years of trauma. 25 years of authorities, press, and even public voices mislabeling these men and their families simply because of the color of their skin. 25 years of injustice. 25 years of being robbed of a childhood they can no longer get back. To say this series is triggering, is an understatement, but it is an incredibly important one to watch. We owe it to ourselves to get educated on important issues of injustice / pieces of history that have been overshadowed by privilege and wealth, and to learn to empathize for minorities and the wrongfully accused placed in situations that are beyond their control. But most of all, we owe it to Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey: their stories deserve to be told. They will no longer be silenced.