This post was written and submitted by Zakkiyah Muhammad.
Ava DuVernay has wowed audiences several times. But this time, she’s created something that everyone must see.
When They See Us is a miniseries created, written, and directed by Ava DuVernay. It follows the everyday lives of five young black and Latino boys. They’re your everyday teenagers, until their lives take a dangerous turn.
DuVernay depicted Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusuf Saleem, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise as living with a brightness and innocence that most young teenagers have. They were focused on things such as school, music lessons, and girls. However, that innocence and brightness is soon dulled in April 1989. The five are questioned about an attack of a young, white female jogger in Central Park. The attack happened the same night the boys were there.
During the investigation, we see the detective’s violent and vicious tactics against the five boys. These tactics eventually lead to the five providing false confessions that would give Linda Fairstein, one of the main prosecutors, and Elizabeth Lederer, the lead district attorney, reason to charge and later convict them.
After the conviction, DuVernay soon unveils heart-wrenching and soul-crushing scenes which explores the aftermath of the trial. We see the physical and psychological damage done to the boys as they try to navigate through a society that has labeled them as criminals. The scenes depict their lives before, during and after their sentences.
My heart ached as I watched five young men navigate through a world that hated them. Not only did they have to acclimate themselves back into society, but they were also faced with the disadvantages of being a felon. The boys struggled to find meaningful work because of their status as a felon. In addition to finding jobs, they each had to navigate through their relationships with parents. Because of the trial, those relationships were damaged.
If that wasn’t heartbreaking enough, DuVernay then gives us detailed insight into Korey Wise’s prison sentencing. Unlike Kevin, Yusuf, Raymond, and Antron, Korey didn’t serve his time at a juvenile detention center. He was the only one charged and convicted as an adult, which resulted in him serving almost 13 years in prison. The first prison he was sent to was Rikers Island — a place no child should be. I sat numb as I watched Korey Wise lose the last remnants of childhood and innocence as he was brutally attacked by fellow inmates. During his time in prison, we see a 16-year-old Korey Wise struggle with adjusting to prison life and threats against his life from fellow inmates.
DuVerney also makes sure to explore how the judicial system and media created a smear campaign against the five boys that were based in gross stereotypes associated with black and brown people. In the beginning of the investigation, Linda Fairstein makes note of a slogan “wilding”. She interprets this slogan as being one of chaos and wild behavior. A slogan that represents all the young men that were brought in for questioning. No longer are they seen as children but as chaotic savages that purposely went out of their way to destroy and cause destruction in the park. In fact, she and the detectives routinely refer to the boys as animals.
The media reinforces these stereotypes and characterization of the young boys through aggressive media tactics. The judicial system and media are able to create a grossly, yet captivating narrative that influence the society’s opinion of the boys and trial. This is why James Baldwin’s quote, “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have,” came to mind after I watched When They See Us. Stereotypes are created out of ignorance. They are ignorant assumptions and notions that are created to negatively perceive a certain group. Assumptions and notions that played a vital role in creating a negative narrative about the five black and brown boys.
When They See Us re-enacts the events of a story that many of us heard of but did not see. I was still an egg in my mother’s womb when the Central Park Five case happened. While I did become aware of it as a young child, I just it viewed as another example of injustice towards black and brown people. I wasn’t aware of the horrors that Kevin, Antron, Yusuf, Raymond, and Korey actually face during the trial. It allowed me to be a spectator of the events that changed the lives of the five young boys and their families. It allowed me a seat at their table, and I thank Korey Wise, Yusuf Saleem, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, and Kevin Richardson for inviting me to their table through the creative lenses and directory of Ava DuVernay.