When They See Us… they still won’t give a fuck.
WHEN THEY SEE US is a mini-series dramatization of the 1989 “Central Park Five” case, where five young boys were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for the rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. In 2001, the real rapist confessed, precipitating the release of the Five, and their convictions “vacated” (a smarmy court euphemism which means, “We fucked up SO hard!”).
I wish I could say, as the filmmakers and exonerated men do, that this mini-series is about hope and redemption and righteousness winning out – but it’s not. It’s a horror carousel ride that will mortify any human remotely compassionate; it’s an indictment against the systemic racism in the New York “justice” system and its prejudiced treatment of lower classes; it’s a cry of chaos and anti-civilization and feral vengeance. And it was a fluke of fate that the truth was revealed, not any effort on the part of the city that was hell-bent on convicting the boys, knowingly, willfully and illegally making them pay for a crime they didn’t commit. And though this series shines a light on unethical police procedures, the inadequate judicial system, the downright futility of presenting a righteous argument against a mountain of lies told by people in positions of authority – nothing has been fixed!
Besides the one speck of good news that the supervising prosecutor in the case (Linda Fairstein) resigned from her college, and the trial prosecutor (Elizabeth Lederer) resigned from her teaching job, due to the spotlight cast on them via this film, the system chugs along oblivious to the cries of those too poor to afford representation. Or too black to be respected as humans. If anything, in the three decades since this perversion of justice, the xenophobia and class warfare prevalent in the American legal system has grown worse.
Co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay, WHEN THEY SEE US is artfully constructed, compelling and heart-wrenching, however, it sells itself as an inspiration to wrongly-incarcerated citizens, but it’s more like a jail nigger stabbing you in the shower after raping you, leaving you bleeding and crying and wishing you were dead.
- Each of the four episodes in this mini-series focuses on one aspect of the case: Episode 1 focuses on the barbaric, illegal methods employed by the New York Police Department to convict the kids.
Of the many children (young boys and girls teetering on 14, 15, 16) who descended on Central Park on that fateful night of April 19, 1989, we meet the Five whose youth is about to be destroyed by the corruption of the New York Police Force – Antron “Tron” McCray (Caleel Harris), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), and Raymond Santana Jr, the only Latino amongst the African-Americans (Marquis Rodriguez). From different backgrounds and fractured families, they have one thing in common – they’re young and poor. Loud and obnoxious, they get caught up in the camaraderie of a massive exodus into the Park, for the express purpose of being loud and obnoxious.
The media would actually coin a term around this time, to describe the indiscriminate confusion created by hordes of teens – “wilding.” Cyclists would get accosted, walkers would get harassed, and we can’t discount that the Five may have taken part in these misdemeanors. Then the violence escalates, with three of the boys witnessing an actual mugging. Police arrive. Everyone runs. Some ask, “If the Five were innocent, why did they run?” Y’know, if a young black male doesn’t run every time he sees the police, his ma and pa didn’t raise him right.
This is America.
Childish Gambino say, “Don’t catch you slippin’ up.”
The next day, a female jogger is found raped and near-death in the park. Felicity Huffman plays the sadistic prosecutor with the blonde lioness locks, Linda Fairstein, who will stop at nothing to convict anyone Black And Nearby. She commands the cops, “I want every black male in that vicinity last night.” And the attack dogs sweep the neighborhood, sniffing out the boys and dragging them in with no parents or legal representation. (A civilian can’t really order the police to do anything. This scene is like the Annoying Kid ordering the military to shoot at Godzilla.)
A sympathetic prosecutor, Nancy Ryan (Famke Janssen – with so much plastic in her face now, she looks like a showroom dummy), tries to curb the foaming illegalities, but the police and Fairstein barrel forward regardless of law.
It’s very hard to watch. The cops are off the leash, brutalizing the kids, lying to them about their rights and procedures, illicitly keeping their parents at bay… If it seems like a one-sided portrayal to make the cops look bad, consider that nowadays we have bodycam and bystander cellphone footage – and the cops still behave like cowardly, unhinged, white-privilege lunatics; imagine those good ole days of zero surveillance.
The boys are terrorized, tortured and coerced into making false statements, to fit the narrative that Fairstein created: of this gang of youths descending on the lone jogger, Trisha Meili, and gang-raping her. Lead detective is Hartigan (Bruce MacVittie), who uses the tactic of separating the kids and telling each, “[Insert friend’s name] said you raped her.”
Vera Farmiga is lead attorney Elizabeth Lederer (with a tight jheri curl that makes me want to slap her goddess face). At first she pushes back on the lack of evidence, then she goes all in to destroy five lives… for politics, for career…
Featured parents are the great John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash (RENO 911!), Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, and Michael Kenneth Williams in an absolutely tragic portrayal of Antron’s guilt-ridden father.
Dumbo Donald is even featured, in actual news footage: “I hate the people who raped this woman.” Imagine that, coming from a rapist. Nowadays, we know that the only reason he was even on the news back then was not because he was a respected real estate raconteur (New Yorkers hated this blowhard with a passion), but because the insanely insecure Russian money-launderer wanted to remain relevant and so stuck his 3-inch mushroom knob into what he knew would be a nationally covered case.
Back then, Dumbo Donald could disguise his full-blown racism behind the facade of being an outraged citizen, but when it was discovered the Five were innocent in 2002, and he doubled down on seeking their deaths (“They must have been doing something wrong!”) there was no hiding his racism any longer; no facade required, because by then, it was obvious he was only talking to the racists and white supremacists in the United States, as one of their foremost spokespeople. (And yet he still got elected president in 2016. Somebody please explain.)
Performances from the boys are stunning; will have you literally gape-mouthed, on the edge of your seat, outrage coursing through your soul, living the existential horror with them.
- Smalltime lawyers against the State of New York. The trial. The verdicts.
We feel the pain of the parents making poverty level wages having to hire lawyers, the only ones they can afford being attorneys out of their depth. Joshua Jackson plays Mickey Joseph, an amiable attorney for Antron, who takes the lead by default as the spokesman for the whole group.
To keep it interesting, film switches back-and-forth between statements from the defense and prosecution. But that doesn’t give us the sense of glutting doom that only listening to the prosecuting attorney would give anyone with their necks on the chopping block. Every time any good lawyer speaks (defense or prosecution), you are only hearing their side for a prolonged amount of time; imagine the terror of wondering how balanced a jury can remain when the opposing team has the floor. Especially when they’re lying.
Fairstein brings in – the jogger, Trisha Meili (Alexandra Templer). She limps slowly to the stand; a hot blonde, brutalized so badly her memory of the night is lost, and her speech and other faculties are degenerated. She doesn’t exonerate the boys, nor does she accuse them, but her appearance made it worse for them simply through her pathos.
The DNA never matched. We wonder, in this age of depending so heavily on technology, why the boys didn’t get released right then. The DNA tech drops an unexpected bomb, “We only tested the DNA from the cervical swab and the sock,” and all the defendants’ lawyers do a double-take and search their files: no sock was ever mentioned – an illegal omission by the prosecution. But it backfired. Lawyer Mickey took a giant gamble: Did the DNA in the sock match his client Antron? No. (Rule of thumb in court is to never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to.) And Mickey took an even bigger gamble, “Did it match the DNA of any of the defendants?”
The ensuing orchestra swell and shocked courtroom rhubarb is a false hope; this is not the magic bullet to freedom. Even though it should have been.
The detectives are grilled – and cannot answer questions on why they took no written notes during the interrogations. The trial seems to be swinging in favor of the boys – until the court airs the video confessions.
Though beaten, threatened, deprived of food and water (by the police!), and coerced to make the confessions, the videos are nonetheless damning.
Episode 2 ends with all the boys found Guilty on multiple counts, with rape at the top of the list. These scenes are beautifully staged, capturing the emotional devastation and claustrophobia of being trapped in an adult game where every way you turn is another trap that you don’t understand, waiting to be sprung.
- Sentences served, four of the boys rotate back into a society aware of their infamy, that will not let them assimilate back into it.
Out of jail, yet the trial of life continues, as each boy discovers that ‘Once a jailbird, always a jailbird’ in the eyes of the society that convicted you.
Now a young man, Raymond Santana Jr (Freddy Miyares) returns home to find his father (Leguizamo) remarried to a snarky Latin woman, an infant half-brother, and a house full of noise and strangers. Due to his conviction, there is no way to get a job, get a house, get ahead.
Kevin (Justin Cunningham), Tron (Jovan Adepo) and Yusef (Chris Chalk) discover the hardest questions on job applications: Have you ever been incarcerated? Have you ever been a felon? Have you ever been a registered sex offender? And if you don’t check the box that you’re a felon, if you end up working alongside another felon, you are re-incarcerated. At every turn, the government making it impossible to shake the felon/sex offender tag; to shake the perception that you are worthless, dangerous, unsavory – and unemployable.
The mini-series also focuses on the guilt of each parent; how their suffering, though different, was probably as great psychologically as their boys’. We feel their trauma, how every millisecond of every day, the knife kept twisting.
Tron takes a girl out, and over a small disagreement, she turns on him: “You treating me like an inmate, you fucken asshole! I know what you did to that lady…” Ironically, even on the outside, there is no escape.
When Tron went in, his father (Michael Kenneth Williams) was a respected parent. To save his son, he told Tron to lie, and it compounded Tron’s doom; now, even though his father is feeble and dying, Tron ignores him in their home, until it is too late to reconcile.
Raymond, browbeaten at home, losing his job, unable to make ends meet in a societal maze that treats ex-cons as if they were still criminals, resorts to dealing crack. And makes money. And gets busted. (This plot point is simply dropped later, after the exoneration, like the filmmakers are hoping we forget about it. I’m sure real life Raymond also wishes it was just a pesky plot thread, but he had to do separate time for this crime, while his friends were being released.)
There is nothing uplifting in this third episode, and it ends on Raymond surrounded by cops, in slow motion, hands raised, blue and red flashing lights, utter defeat. It seems the boys are simply spiraling the drain of recidivism. Better than any “Scared Straight” programs, this series shows us the traumatic horrors of jail’s hellish embrace long after you’ve left the physical bars and stone.
- Korey Wise solo, through the prison system, in granular, soul-shattering detail. At 16, he was tried, sentenced and incarcerated as an adult. Years later, his chance meeting with the actual rapist in prison would start a chain of events that would free the Central Park Five.
Jharrel Jerome is a revelation! Whereas all the other boys have two actors playing them, as youths and adults, Jerome plays Korey Wise as a 16-year-old, all the way up to adulthood, through the cunning stylings of hair and makeup, and a performance that stuns us with its diversity and layers! When we catch up with him after a few years inside, he looks so much like a black Jake Gyllenhaal, I thought for sure he was another actor!
Korey is portrayed as simple and illiterate, the detectives exploiting his lack of education to their benefit. His coerced confession tape is the most damning, and unintentionally the most humorous, as he stutters away, “…uh, this is—this is my first rape, and I—I don’t intend to do it again…”
On his first day inside, four men beat and rape Korey, and one of the guards menacingly repeats to him, “Tell me if there’s anything you can do for me…” implying that the beatings will stop if Korey comes up with a suitable answer. And we can only pray to a non-existent god that the racist judges and cops and lawyers who sentenced this boy to adult prison will one day also experience the unimaginable mental and physical damnation Korey suffered through. His only lifeline is his mother, who visits rarely (due to distance and cost), and when she asks, “How you doing?” what can he possibly say?
By 1991, Korey was in Attica. After nearly being killed by Nazis, a guard named Roberts (Logan Marshall-Green) takes Korey under his wing, giving him survival tips, like requesting solitary so the crazies can’t get to him, then bringing him books and trinkets.
We delve into Korey’s hallucinations in solitary, which only deepens the sorrow, the unbounded regrets of his life. If only he hadn’t left that young girl at the diner and went howling into the dark with his friends… His mother stops visiting due to distance, and he writes letters requesting a transfer to a closer prison. Roberts advises against it, tells him it’s a crapshoot, that he might get transferred in the opposite direction. Sure enough, Korey ends up in Wende Prison, 366 miles further away from mom. At this point, I truly don’t know how he didn’t kill himself.
The parole board sees Korey every year, three lunatic privileged white snots who just want to hear – like Alcoholics Anonymous – that “you admit to your guilt” with the promise of freedom for your self-debasement. Korey staunchly denies them their pleasure.
The discovery of the real rapist, Matias Reyes (Reese Noi), is a flight of fancy for the filmmakers. Reyes probably never ran into Korey, let alone at two prisons, but the filmmakers make Korey the motive for Reyes’ confession. On their second encounter, Reyes asks Korey if he still denies raping that woman. And the story plays out as if Reyes confesses because he is “inspired” by Korey’s unwavering brave stance.
By that juncture, the guilt of the boys was so etched in stone, we wonder how the moribund judicial system every creaked into gear to reverse five of its hard-won (albeit illegal and unethical) convictions. Nancy Ryan (Janssen) is portrayed as the lone attorney who oils the gears into motion, against Fairstein and the presiding judges, who maintain the convictions were justified, the passage of time caressing all those privileged racist pigs into believing the lies they told the public during the trial.
Linda Fairstein – like Dumbo Donald – still maintains the boys are guilty, despite the evidence collected from Reyes that proves he is the rapist. So – like Dumbo Donald – she reveals her prosaic racist agenda. And can go to hell, bleeding painfully from every orifice, for all I care. How can we be expected to maintain a semblance of courtesy toward someone so obviously devoid of empathy, compassion or respect for justice and the law? (Same question directed at Dumbo Donald voters…)
In the final title cards, we see the actual Central Park Five as men, all successful at businesses they’ve grown from the ground up, with full families and grand prospects. Through the joy for their successes, I feel such sadness looking at their now-smiling faces. Yet, the hardest thing to admit is that maybe none of these men would have possessed the impetus to become the businessmen they are today without that horrifying chapter that scarred their lives as boys. One ponders on how their adulthood might have turned out far less extraordinary had they simply lived out their childhood in the projects, out of trouble, out of sight, out of hope…
They sued New York, and were awarded a $41 million settlement in 2014. And that brings a smile. No amount of recompense will extinguish the darkness completely, but that amount sure pushes it far into the background.
The title, WHEN THEY SEE US, implies that when the authorities “see” the truth, when they “see” the innocence of the boys, the real evidence, the souls of these ravaged sons, that they will afford the boys the respect they deserve. Nope. There is NO metaphysical beauty in truth when it comes to a courtroom battle between one side paid to defend and one side paid to convict – both those attorneys will zealously represent their clients no matter the ethics, evidence or truth. And the attorney with the best presentation, courtside manner and golfing connections will win out, truth be strangled in the crib.
If we can take any lesson from this mini-series, it’s not hope or righteousness or even human decency winning out. As I’ve said, the exoneration here is a fluke of the highest order. No, the lesson of WHEN THEY SEE US is that the police force and the judicial system are working for the upper classes in American society. Ironically, no one “sees” that glaring subplot, because the focus is on the boys.
As we speak, hundreds of thousands of underprivileged kids rot in jails across the country for petty infractions or wrongful and illegal convictions, because – in the words of best-selling author Jeffrey Reiman – the rich get richer… and the poor get prison. There will never be an orchestra swell or redemption for poverty-stricken unfortunates wrongfully incarcerated; they are victims to the authorities – authorities that have been empowered by the politicians and judges who own them, to scoop up lower class perps for revenue; victims that the police, judges and politicians will never “see.”
If you doubt that the supposedly impartial police force is partial to the rich, ask yourself: If Robert Downey Jr. is pulled over for going 10 miles over the speed limit, would he get a ticket after the officers recognize him?… Now put yourself in that hot seat. And you’re out $300. When they “see” Robert Downey Jr. they see their employers, their meal ticket, a potential step up to a higher echelon; all they “see” in you is a collar, an impediment to society, a pain in the ass, a criminal, a bad end to their bad day.
WHEN THEY SEE US is powerful for the true story it tells, but the title is a gaslight, implying that if every wrongly-incarcerated criminal could only be “seen,” then the authorities would work their damndest to free them. But if and when they “see” the poor in chains… they still won’t give a fuck.