Review: “When They See Us” is The Must Watch Show of The Summer
I don’t cry very often. Let me rephrase that. I hardly ever cry. I can only recall crying three times in the past year. Once was the day my dog died. The second was when I was chopping onions. The third time was today when I finished Netflix’s new limited series, “When They See Us.”
The show, released on May 31, quickly drew critical acclaim. The limited series has just four episodes, each more than an hour in length. This might not be a big issue for most people, but it is for me. I don’t watch long T.V. shows. I watch 20-minute sitcoms because they’re funny and easy to watch. I don’t watch dramas or long shows because I just don’t have the attention span for them. However, “When They See Us” was different. I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the screen at all.
The show follows the story of the “Central Park Five,” a group of black teenagers from Harlem. The boys were arrested, detained, convicted and imprisoned for a crime they did not commit after being coerced into confessing to raping and beating a woman jogging in Central Park.
The first episode shows the boys—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise—getting arrested after getting caught “wilding” in Central Park. They were just running and scaring pedestrians, but the police accused them of raping a jogger, who was found in a different part of the park.
The boys were detained and interrogated by the NYPD. Detectives coerced them to admit to raping the woman, threatening them to not let them leave until they complied. The boys didn’t know what they were doing. They were held for many hours without food, water and bathroom breaks. All they knew was they wanted to go home and if they said the lies the police fed them, they would be released.
This is one of the most powerful parts of the series. It shows how corrupt law enforcement officers forced these boys to lie on record about a crime they did not commit. It makes you question how frequently this kind of coercion happened with the NYPD and how deep this systemic problem runs in law enforcement in the nation.
The second episode examines the legal side of the story, showing the trials (there were multiple) and tactics of the state versus the five boys. The assistant district attorney, Linda Fairstein, clearly knew the boys were innocent but built a case against them using the video interviews where they falsely confessed to the crime.
Fairstein had no physical evidence against them. Their DNA was nowhere around the crime scene. All the evidence points to the boys being in a different part of Central Park when the attack occurred, yet the jury still convicted them of being guilty. Four of the boys are sent to juvenile detention, while the only one who is not a minor, Wise, is sent to an actual prison.
This part of the show, like many others, is hard to watch. You can see how hard the lawyers fought to show the truth, that the boys were innocent. However, they were still convicted because they were black males and the victim was a white female. The show’s director, Ava DuVernay, beautifully showcased the systemic racism the boys faced and how they never stood a chance in court because of it.
The final two episodes show the lives of the five boys, and later men, in the correctional system. The third episode focuses on McCray, Richardson, Salaam and Santana while the finale is solely about Wise.
In the third episode, each of the four face different struggles in prison. However, these struggles pale in comparison to when they’re released several years later and have to readjust to a changed world. It’s hard for them to find jobs and their home lives are completely different. Yet none of what the four boys faced holds a candle to Wise’s situation.
Wise, 16 years old at the time, was sent to an adult prison where he was beaten up in the first few days. Wise’s trial had been nationally televised and the inmates recognized him and punished him because they thought he was guilty. He requested a transfer and was beat up at the new prison too. After receiving advice from a correctional officer, Wise requested to be put in solitary confinement where he slowly went mad.
This episode is also extremely hard to watch because you can see Wise going crazy with each passing day. As the voices in his head get louder and louder, his living conditions get worse and worse. Wise went before a parole board several times, but he refused to admit to the crime he didn’t commit, so he was not released.
After more than a decade, a fellow inmate admitted to beating and raping the woman in Central Park. The man was a serial rapist and his DNA matched what the police found. After this, Wise was released and the show ended with the five free men all standing together back home in Harlem.
There were numerous powerful moments in this show, but this was by far the strongest. The five men spent many years in prison for a crime they did not commit, punished by a racist system, convicted with no physical evidence, coerced by corrupt law enforcement; yet, here they stood, free at last. This was when I began to cry. The system stole the youths of the “Central Park Five,” but justice was served in the end.
“When They See Us” is not a lighthearted series. It is not easy to watch. It is not a feel-good show to put on when you’re bored. However, I would recommend that everyone (maybe not kids, there are several graphic scenes and lots of cursing) watch it.
“When They See Us” possesses the quality that all great art strives for, pulling you so far into the world it creates that you forget reality for a moment. In addition, if you don’t think racism is still an issue or if you don’t believe in systemic oppression, this show just might change your mind.