Based on true events, co-writer/director Ava DuVernay’s four part Netflix miniseries begins on an infamous night in 1989; when a white female jogger is viciously assaulted in Central Park, the police launch a rushed investigation and quickly round up several black teenagers who were coincidentally roaming the streets when it happened, going on to single out five teens – Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse) and Raymond Santana Jr. (Marquis Rodriguez) – and, through several intimidation tactics and by keeping them away from their parents, the teenagers are threatened, coerced and bullied into confessing to the crime, despite there being no physical evidence and the fact that the boys had absolutely nothing to do with the attack. With news of the “Central Park Five” making the headlines, the group, and their families, nervously prepare for their trial and must deal with the life-altering aftermath and the realisation that their lives will never be the same again.
After the mixed to negative reception A Wrinkle in Time received, filmmaker Ava DuVernay is firmly back on track with When They See Us – an incredibly powerful, harrowing, relevant and important piece of work that’s easily up there with Selma and 13th in terms of quality. This series is something of a spiritual successor to 13th – a cinematic dramatisation of the true life tales brought up in that documentary, if you will – as it also holds the mirror up to the flawed American justice system and tells us how black people are forced into accepting responsibility for crimes they didn’t commit and if they protest their innocence and go to court, they will surely lose and face near life sentences, the conditions inside being inhumane and deplorable. DuVernay and co-writers Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke and Michael Starrbury are clearly angry at the broken and unfair system of justice in America and this series, like 13th, aims to provoke, shock, scare and move us and in this, they succeed spectacularly because, despite the odd slow moment and dip in interest, we see the innocent characters being abused and subjected to hellish treatment and unfair judgement as their lives are stolen away from them – persecuted simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – and the series doesn’t pull any punches as we are made to see how this world really works and we deeply empathise with the sweet kids who are made to suffer unjustly
Split into four distinct parts, the first chapter lets us see the tactics that the police use to get confessions out of the innocent suspects and it is definitely eye-opening and shocking; we see how the teenagers are shouted at, physically assaulted, threatened, and how they are kept apart from their parents and family members – one parent intentionally being given the wrong address for the police station and other parents having to leave because they have to go to work. Afterwards, they cleverly send in “the good cop” – the guy with the pleasant face and reassuring voice who claims to hate the methods used by the other detectives and who, with the tantalising promise of them being able to finally go home, is able to get them to admit to the crime. This first part also illustrates the prejudice and hate that some white authority figures feel toward black street kids, liberally using terms like “thugs”, “animals” and “monsters”, and although it can often seem a bit one-sided, the series gets us angry at these self-righteous and ignorant people and we are truly shocked by the way they half heartedly put the investigation together, not being specific with the timeline or locations, making what little evidence they have fit the facts, and never bothering to search for the actual guilty party.
The second part inspires a little hope as the prosecution fail to secure any physical evidence, the assaulted woman can’t identify her attackers and the boys’ lawyer seems to expertly dominate proceedings, though the families still have to battle all the media attention, scenes in the court often turn ugly and we witness how some journalists exaggerate parts of their stories without knowing all of the facts, and part three looks at the sad aftermath of the trial as most of the boys face an uphill battle with trying to gain employment and lodgings after the ordeal, their childhoods having been taken away from them, and it’s sad to see them face this harsh punishment for absolutely no reason. But it’s the fourth chapter that really hits hardest because it sees Korey entering the adult prison system and it’s undeniably gruelling and awful to watch as he faces sadistic guards, attacks from fellow inmates, apathetic and scared medical staff who turn a blind eye to the horrors of prison, parole hearings who won’t grant him freedom until he accepts responsibility for his “crime”, and very long stretches of time in solitary confinement – most of the time without air; this closing chapter is a bona fide gut punch of an episode and is remarkably harrowing and ever so emotional. But despite the horrors, we are occasionally able to share in the rare joys that Korey’s able to feel and the whole thing ends on an inspiring and hopeful note that may leave you smiling as the credits roll.
Complimenting the astounding story, When They See Us also succeeds because of its excellent cast that features many big names in supporting roles as well as several bright young talents who make up the central group. As the teenagers who make up the “Central Park Five” teenagers, Caleel Harris, Asante Blackk, Ethan Herisse and Marquis Rodriguez all prove to be very remarkable young actors and as they go through their torment, they show boatloads of genuine emotion and we never have any doubt that they’re suffering and fearful for their lives, though they’re also able to share in some endearing camaraderie and in the lighter moments, they have fun and joke around with each other, which is lovely and sweet to witness. And as for the adult versions of their characters, Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Justin Cunningham and Freddy Miyares all do justice to their younger counterparts and give strong and moving performances (though, as it was with It Chapter Two, the younger actors actually make more of an impact!)
But perhaps above all others, Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome gives the star performance because he’s the only actor to play both the teenage and adult versions of his character and in the final chapter, he steals the show as he faces what seems like a lifetime inside prison and as his character goes through the ringer, he shows tons of genuine, heartwrenching fear, desperation and despair (particularly towards the beginning) and then, as he “toughens up”, he changes from the kid he used to be and shows off some confidence and world-weariness while still occasionally appearing scared and once in a while, letting the nightmare get to him as he lashes out and loses his grip on sanity. It’s often impossible to believe that it’s the same actor all the way through but that is indeed the case and Jerome closes off the series magnificently, giving us a masterful performance that’s so full of feeling, power and emotion – a huge boon to the series that helps considerably in showing just what effect the justice system can have on an unaware individual.
There are also several strong supporting performances and in particular, John Leguizamo gives a quiet and nuanced performance as concerned parent Raymond Santana, Felicity Huffman is utterly detestable as the self-important and prejudiced Sex Crimes head Linda Fairstein (as soon as she enters, you know she’s bad news. Just gotta look at that awful hairdo!), and Joshua Jackson is incredibly charismatic, likeable and strong as defender Mickey Joseph. The series also features actors like Famke Janssen, William Sadler, Vera Farmiga, Niecy Nash, Dascha Polanco, Logan Marshall-Green, Kylie Bunbury and Storm Reid in supporting roles and they all contribute brilliantly to the show.
Lastly, the series is expertly directed by Ava DuVernay and, with the assistance of Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young who sure does make the show visually appealing and gorgeous to look at – a cut above your average true crime drama, she makes great use of the locations, gives clear purpose to each chapter, counterbalances the horror with moments of levity, and she infuses the story with plenty of style and imagination, particularly in the final chapter when Korey is alone in solitary and delves into his imagination in order to cope.