“When They See Us”: An American Tragedy

I hardly know what to say about this series. And yet, I feel compelled to write about it. It is so painful to watch and then to imagine how incalculably more painful, harrowing, soul-crushing it must have been for the five boys and their families to live through. There are not enough words. It’s a good thing we have movies and Ava Du Vernay. “When They See Us” manages to exonerate the five in the cultural imagination in a way that no legal process can, even as it indicts a society whose legal system continues to destroy lives in the name of justice.

I was in college when the “Central Park 5” case was in the news, and because I’d grown up in the New York metro area, I may have paid a little more attention to it. Even so, I didn’t retain many details about the case apart from maybe an image of Yusef Salaam with his distinctive flat top. I was aware on some level that the boys were being prosecuted in the media long before the actual trial; that the “people’s” case was weak, but it looked like these teens were going to take the fall for the crime anyway; that race had everything to do with it. Still, at 20 years old, I had only a vague sense of how systemic and institutional racism really worked. I didn’t know then that these kids never had a chance.

When we sat down to watch it, my husband said in surprise, “oh, I thought it was a documentary.” At the end of episode 1, we felt sick to our stomachs. A documentary would not have been as emotionally wrenching, and that is the point. Because we know the outcome, the dramatic irony is intensified at every step – very early on, you see how trapped the boys and their families already are, how once prosecutor Linda Fairstein makes up her mind that these five teens, picked almost randomly, are guilty, the wheels of the system grind on in predictable fashion. The prosecutors have at their disposal a series of narratives (about gangs, thugs, animals, male aggression) that they can deploy as needed and a jury and a public primed to accept these narratives as true. The series reveals the insidious logic at play: the destruction of five lives to avenge the destruction of one is acceptable despite the lack of evidence, because these black kids must be guilty of something, so why not of this crime? It’s the casualness with which their lives are sacrificed that stays with me.

As a kind of coping mechanism as I was watching, I sometimes turned my attention to matters of craft, the way Du Vernay constructs and represents the story, not just the story itself. Things I noticed:

  • She consistently uses a soft focus around the edges of her shots, maybe to emphasize the tunnel vision of memory or the sense of claustrophobia that closes in on the boys as their hope diminishes.
  • The white detectives and police officers are nameless functionaries of the system. Their emotions, thoughts, any doubts they may have had are irrelevant. Their dehumanizing interrogation of the teens is reflected back in Du Vernay’s refusal to humanize them.
  • When the boys are first brought in for questioning, there are a couple of passing shots of Black city employees (a clerk, another police officer) who are silent witnesses to the traps being laid for them. Their expressions are a mix of foreboding and resignation, signaling that they’ve seen this kind of thing play out before.
  • In the way she shows the processing of these five lives through the criminal justice system (police, criminal courts, juvenile detention, prison, and life as convicted felons), Du Vernay makes clear that this is not a fluke, this is the way the system is built. Theirs was not the first wrongful conviction and certainly not the last.

We ended up watching the Oprah interview with members of the cast, Du Vernay, and the Exonerated Five right after finishing episode 4. What I realized as I watched the five men answering Oprah’s sometimes uncomfortably probing questions is how much I needed some kind of redemptive end to their stories, especially after the brutality of Korey Wise’s experience. Like Oprah, like all the people in the audience who come out to hear these men speak, I think I wanted to be reassured that after their ordeals, they were okay, that they had managed to put their lives back together despite the violence done to them.

But they’re not okay. As Antron McCray says, breaking down, “My life is ruined.” He has no forgiveness for those who had a hand in ruining his life, including his father. He says he refuses therapy, and I get the sense that he hangs on to his anger as a kind of life raft. After so much loss, it’s something no one can take away from him. Yusef Salaam seems to have most successfully turned his exoneration into an opportunity to remake himself as a motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He gets closest to giving us the redemptive narrative we’re seeking, but his words feel performative, like he’d learned to tell people what they wanted to hear. More than Antron’s anger, though, it is Korey Wise – taciturn and gaunt, his eyes as if a window has shut – whose presence on the stage is a kind of rebuke not only of any notion of redemption, but also of our hunger for it. Yusef’s words about transforming suffering into something else ring a little hollow spoken in front of someone whose sentence was twice as long and served in adult prisons, much of it in solitary confinement. Sitting on the opposite side of the stage from Yusef, Korey says, yes, he regrets going down to the station to support his friend. And there’s nothing to do but sit with the horrible weight of that regret and all the “what could have beens” that are lost to them.

I’d read that it was Raymond Santana, Jr. who had tweeted at Ava Du Vernay to suggest she take on the story of the Central Park Five, and when I saw him on stage, it made sense: he seems the most open to engaging with the world. He seems to be the magnet that has pulled the men back together, reuniting them now as the Exonerated Five, back in the spotlight whether the rest of them wanted it or not. All this attention, though—I wonder whether it’s retraumatizing them to have to rehearse their experiences again and again, especially since there are those who still insist on their guilt. Is there a way to listen and bear witness without demanding they perform for us to make us feel better?

What I’m left with is our collective complicity in how we saw them then, how we see still see Black boys now, and what it will take to truly see them. In an effort to show that he sees them, Joe Biden recently said about Black youth, “We’ve got to recognize that kid wearing a hoodie may very well be a poet laureate, and not a gang banger.” There’s so much to unpack in that sentence, but “may very well be” spells out the terms in which blackness is visible to whiteness, the implicit surprise built into those moments when a Black “kid in a hoodie” defies expectations. Don’t shoot, he might be famous. Where is the space between Black exceptionalism (“poet laureate”; celebrated exonerees) and Black criminality (“gang banger”; Central Park Five) in which they can simply be and be left alone?

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