Antron McCray. Kevin Richardson. Yusef Salaam. Raymond Santana. Korey Wise.
I will admit that up until When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s searing four-part miniseries premiering this Friday on Netflix, I knew these men as only the “Central Park Five.” That they were, to me, first the perpetrators of a horrific crime and later exonerated victims of a rigged legal system.
But still, I’m embarrassed to admit, in my youth, I didn’t really think about the circumstances that led to their convictions or all the lives that were impacted by a corrupt police investigation.
You cannot look away from When They See Us or shelter yourself from the blinding truth. The harrowing episodes will leave you devastated but also in awe of how McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise came out on the other side of what happened to them and are leading happy, productive lives today.
On April 19, 1989, 28-year-old Trisha Meli was jogging in Central Park when she was brutally raped and left for dead. In a coma for 12 days, Meli had no memory of what happened to her and was unable to identify her attacker or attackers. The series doesn’t shy away from the horrors of what happened to Meli. A successful white woman left for dead in America’s most famous public space did not sit well with New York City. Everyone—the mayor, the district attorney, the police department—wanted her attackers caught.
But somewhere along the line, Manhattan District Attorney Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman, in her first post-scandal role) and NYPD detectives lost sight of wanting to find the actual criminal and decided to solve the crime by any means necessary. For hours, the five boys were interrogated without their parents present. They were beaten. They were denied food and sleep. And, perhaps most egregiously, they were told if they said what the police wanted to hear, they could go home. “You give something, you get something,” a detective tells Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez). When family members were allowed to see the boys, they were often unknowingly complicit in what was happening. Detectives not-so-subtly threaten Anton’s father Bobby’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) job. “You’ve got to say what they want you to say,” Bobby tells Anton (Caleel Harris). Kevin’s sister Angie (Kylie Bunbury) signs Kevin’s confession because a crying, beaten Kevin (Asante Blackk) tells her he just wants to go home and she thinks complying will get him that.
The five boys were convicted with no DNA evidence, no blood evidence, no fingerprints. There was absolutely nothing to tie them to the crime. It was stunning to me that only Yusef (Ethan Herisse) and Korey (Jharrel Jerome) knew each other before this. The boys were given the names to use during their confessions.
What’s missing is why Fairstein and the detectives did what they did. Clearly, they wanted to lock someone up for the crime. But it’s very difficult to believe, because there was no physical evidence against the boys, that Fairstein truly believed they were guilty. “Are you listening to yourself? You sound delusional,” prosecuting attorney Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) says to her at one point. One wonders how Fairstein lived with herself, how deep her level of denial went. DuVernay, who co-wrote and directed all four parts, doesn’t offer an explanation. Perhaps that’s because there is none. Nothing justifies what was done to these boys. A quick Google search lets you know that none of this appears to have negatively impacted Fairstein, who seems to still have a thriving career writing crime novels.
The story itself is overwhelmingly powerful. But there are several key decisions DuVernay makes that turns When They See Us into one of the year’s, if not the decade’s best, programs. One is the casting of five relatively unknown actors to play the boys. The “Central Park Five” were 14-16 years old in 1989 and Rodriguez, Herisse, Jerome, Blackk and Harris not only look young but portray the absolutely vulnerability and fear that their real-life counterparts must have felt. Because the actors will most likely not be known to the viewers, it is easy and terrifying to see what is happening through the boys’ eyes. Wisely older actors play the adult versions of Yusef, Kevin, Anton and Raymond. These are the actors we see getting out of prison and trying to reclaim and restart their lives. Right before our very eyes we have a visual representation of how their youth was stolen from them.
We also get to see their families, who fought so hard for their children. Niecy Nash as Korey’s mom Delores. John Leguizamo as Raymond’s father, who remarries while Raymond is a way and struggles to balance his old family with his new one. Aunjanue Ellis as Sharon Salaam, the only parent who understood the system enough to make sure her son didn’t sign a false confession. DuVernay doesn’t make any of them saints. They all make horrible mistakes and painful decisions. But their love for their children is never in doubt.
Yusef, Kevin, Anton and Raymond all were sent to juvenile detention. And When They See Us doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on what happened to the boys when they were there. Frankly I was relieved, as I’m sure their years there weren’t great. But then comes the devastating fourth episode, which is a tour-de-force performance for Jerome, the only actor to play both the younger and older version of his character. Because he’s 16, Korey is sent to Rikers and then transferred several times over, each penitentiary worse than the one before it. He’s beaten, abused by the guards, left alone in solitary and only one guard (played by Logan Marshall-Green) provides him with any comfort and treats him like a human being. It is a traumatic hour and Jerome is nothing short of phenomenal.
The cast from Joshua Jackson as Mickey Joseph, the public defender for Anton McCray, to Famke Janssen the prosecutor who eventually gets the convictions vacated, to Williams as the father who can’t forgive himself, is uniformly stellar.
Truly the show’s only misstep is when one character advises that they don’t need to worry about Trump, who infamously took out a full-page ad advocating for the return of the death penalty for these boys. “His 15 minutes is almost up,” she says. We, unfortunately, all know that isn’t true. And the show is better than this wink-wink to the audience.
When They See Us is exceedingly difficult to watch. It cut me to my very core. When you see it, I’m sure it will do the same to you.
When They See Us premieres May 31 on Netflix.