The Netflix miniseries When They See Us from Ava DuVernay is excruciating to watch—an unflinching look at the human wreckage left behind after New York City’s police, prosecutors, courts, and news media insisted that five young Harlem residents pay the price for a crime they didn’t commit: the rape and near-murder of a jogger in Central Park in the spring of 1989.
I was tempted to turn off the TV about 15 minutes in—and might have if my wife, an immigrant committed to understanding our country for what it is, hadn’t insisted on continuing. Many of my friends stopped early on or never started to begin with.
That title, When They See Us, was a conscious decision by DuVernay not to use the familiar shorthand for the case, “the Central Park Five.” That was the name of a 2012 documentary that described the mania to convict these five—Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—who spent six to 13 years in prison before Matias Reyes, a murderer and serial rapist serving 33 years to life for other crimes, came forward to confess. His was the only DNA found at the crime scene.
For DuVernay’s miniseries, there would be no shorthand, no attempt to make the horror somehow familiar or routine. This time, the five young men wouldn’t simply be championed and vindicated, they would be seen. And when truly seen, Salaam, McCray, Richardson, Santana, and Wise become fully human. Though considering the instinct of many white viewers like myself to look away, a slightly different title—If They See Us—might also have made sense.
I grew up in New York City. I knew about the Central Park Five story. I knew that the case was later officially considered a miscarriage of justice. I was glad when New York City paid the five grown men $41 million in restitution.
But had I “seen” them? I’m afraid not. And this is what brilliant artists of color can do with such a subject that white artists basically can’t—bring to life an underexposed world and make you look. More than simply call out an injustice, the series explores the complex ways these events play out within a person’s soul, family, and community.
For example, the way Korey Wise’s absence deprived his transgender sister, Marci, of an ally when their mother turned against her. Or how the parents at times undercut each other to protect their own sons. Or how Kevin Richardson’s sister didn’t want to date and be happy while her brother was in prison.
These subplots make the injustice visceral but don’t follow a hagiographic script. They are not predictable, and they generate mixed feelings and divided loyalties. DuVernay was urged to tell this story by Santana, who made the suggestion in a 2015 tweet that included the hashtags #wishfulthinking #fingerscrossed.
He explained in an interview that he had seen DuVernay’s movie Selma, and appreciated that she included a scene of Coretta Scott King confronting her husband about extramarital affairs. If she could be unflinching toward an icon like Martin Luther King, the NYPD didn’t stand a chance. “That was bold to put in the film,” he told The New York Times. “It showed the human side of this man who was put on a pedestal. And it told me that she had no fear of telling the truth.”
The potential benefit from inclusion within the arts, politics, and technology is not simply to register that an injustice has been done and to seek to correct it, but to see the injustice all around and to insist on the human stakes involved and the unpredictable human reactions.