Why Ava Duvernay’s ‘When They See Us’ is Essential Watching



On May 31st, Netflix released Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us, a four-part miniseries following the case of the infamous 1989 Central Park Jogger Case. The story follows five teenage boys: Antron McCray (15), Raymond Santana (15), Kevin Richardson (14), Yusef Salaam (15) and Korey Wise (16) who are coincidentally in Central Park, separately and alongside a crowd of other boys, on the night a white woman is raped, beaten and left for dead.

Linda Fairstein, head of the sex crimes unit, quickly establishes that the crowd of teenagers in the park must have been involved in the rape. Consequently, the New York Police Department (NYPD) picks up the five boys who are then deprived of parental supervision, beaten and coerced to give false statements under the guise that they would get to go home. Despite there not being any evidence to prove the teenagers were involved, they were never given the benefit of the doubt, the five were convicted and spent several years in prison. It wasn’t until 2002 when the real perpetrator came forward, exonerating the five for the crime but by then, they had served the majority of their sentences.

When They See Us follows the five boys as they navigate the American justice system, a system that was already designed against them while dealing with their families and the community around them. It analyses the role of the media in villainising the boys and effectively deeming them guilty before proven innocent in the eyes of the public. It depicts the harsh realities that Black and Latino youth are subject to in the United States and reminds us that this isn’t an isolated situation, but a widespread problem that continues to this day. Since its arrival two weeks ago, the miniseries has garnered critical acclaim, becoming the most watched show on Netflix (US) every day since its premiere.

Institutional Racism

What makes this miniseries such important viewing is that Duvernay reminds us that this miscarriage of justice wasn’t just a simple mistake, but racism ingrained into a system that was never about the truth. Linda Fairstein, along with prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer, saw these boys as ‘thugs’ which quickly turned into ‘animals’, setting the stage for their inevitable persecution. But Duvernay did more than that, she captured the boys in a way that they hadn’t been before. They were never given the chance to be kids, so she emphasised their vulnerability, they were never allowed to be sons, so she highlighted the relationship between them and their families, she rightfully portrayed them as victims of the case and the criminal justice system.

That same system continues to ruin the lives of many people of colour and sometimes even leads to their untimely death. This was the case when NYPD choked Eric Garner to death in 2014 for allegedly selling cigarettes on the street, sparking the anti-police brutality slogan ‘I Can’t Breathe’. Or when Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a white officer in 2014 or when Sandra Bland was mysteriously found dead in her cell after being arrested during a traffic stop in 2014. The list goes on. And while African Americans only make 13% of the United States population, they seem to disproportionately make up 40% of the prison population. There has always been a race problem in America, the problem is no-one seems to see it and Duvernay forces viewers to swallow that hard truth.

The miniseries has led to real change as well. Linda Fairstein was recently dropped by her book publisher and prosecutor Lederer has resigned from her post at Columbia Law School under increasing pressure. This only further exemplifies how important When They See Us is and how sometimes art can lead to at least some form of justice. Even if it may not be quite enough.

Main picture taken from Popsugar, a Getty image by Taylor Hill