“When They See Us” Is Both Memorable Political Art and Misfired Entertainment
“When They See Us” is a four-episode dramatized Netflix series, directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay, about the Central Park Five. That byname, by the nature of DuVernay’s project, almost immediately comes to seem not merely inadequate but unjust. The phrase presses five teen-age boys into a faceless gang, or a multiheaded monster, and the miniseries insists that we state their names: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. The boys, four of whom were black and one of whom was Latino, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was Central Park on the night of April 19, 1989, when a female jogger named Trisha Meili was beaten, raped, and left for dead—and it is also the United States of America anytime since its founding.
In revisiting this infamous miscarriage of justice, the miniseries presents an odd compound of memorable political art and misfired entertainment. Like “The 13th,” DuVernay’s excellent documentary about the legacies of slavery, “When They See Us” is guided by a strong historical analysis. But unlike “Selma,” her drama about Martin Luther King, Jr., it can seem awkwardly sermonic, relaying its ideas by way of familiar tropes. It unsteadily treads the line between the effectively excruciating and the plainly tedious. Viewers with a lick of conscience will know what to think, but the score keeps swelling to tell them how to feel. Its bluntest images—a rat in a prison cell, for instance—do a disservice to its many graceful characterizations.
The series is lyrical in its fleeting visions of the children’s shattered lives and deadeningly prosaic in its deconstruction of how those lives were shattered. The first five minutes sketch the boys’ personalities as they enjoy moments of teen freedom on the eve of spring break: a burger with a father, a stroll with a sibling, a bit of banter with a witty girl. A gorgeous green dusk falls as they swell the ranks of a group of thirty or forty kids who enter the park to make a ruckus, which a blurry selection of them escalate into a small rampage of hassling bicyclists and mugging pedestrians. Kevin, the most tender of the five boys, watches, appalled, as roughnecks in the group beat a passerby; then a cop clobbers him in the head and calls him an animal.
Around the same time as these boys were witnessing the criminal misdeeds of their peers and scurrying away from trouble, Meili suffered a vicious attack—very approximately around the same time. The prosecutor in charge of the sex-crimes unit—Linda Fairstein, played by Felicity Huffman—massages the police department’s time line of events to resolve a forty-five-minute discrepancy and place the teen mob at the site of the attack. One of the series’ nice notes of ambiguity concerns whether Fairstein’s drive to convict these kids, despite copious evidence calling for their exoneration, is strictly a matter of careerism or of sincere beliefs, suggested by her avid megaphoning of the “animals” refrain. Either way, the authorities intend to quickly author a story of order restored and vengeance achieved. The boys’ fate as fall guys is sealed when a local-TV-news van pulls in among the cruisers parked outside of the precinct house. “When They See Us” is rich in such moments of quiet juxtaposition, with, say, the matter-of-fact set dressing of a DARE poster in the background, gesturing beyond the story to the drug war. It’s also compelling as a meta-narrative about the control of story lines, as when the chatter of talk radio sounds like a chorus calling for the blood sacrifice of scapegoats.
If this were not based on a true story, you could call the motion of it schematic: it is a procedural of injustice. In the first episode, with its depiction the coerced confessions, good-cop-bad-cop routines come to seem routine quite quickly. The second episode, in which the defense lawyers, with their cheap suits and high ideals, are outmatched by the connivances of the district-attorney’s office, moves all too easily from the poignant specifics of each boy’s feelings, and of Meili’s halting turn at the witness stand, to the generic territory of courtroom drama. The third episode features many reprises of the opening sequence. Initially, it’s poignant to see these flashbacks to the unspoiled boyhoods of incarcerated men (and, later, frustrated parolees)—a welcome jolt of warm humanity amid scenes featuring sadistic inmates. But, by the fourth episode, when a memory of an innocent dalliance with a girlfriend flowers into a fantasy sequence set among the amusements of Coney Island, it’s cheap.
When the narrative arc has bent toward justice, with the confession, in 2002, by the actual rapist and the vacating of the convictions, and the present-day faces of the five real men appear onscreen, you may feel that a more satisfying miniseries would have focussed closely on any one of them. As it is, the many excellent small performances in “When They See Us” feel especially small because of the series’ ambitious sweep. There are a lot of full characters here, but we only get partial views of them, and the interplay between the poetic evocations of these individual souls and the grand indictment of the criminal-justice system is rarely as compelling as one might like.
Maybe it’s asking a lot, these days, to expect one’s preferences in social-justice essayism and narrative art to be satisfied by the same story. The series represents an important act of witness—strange to say, considering the fame of the case and its rehashing in memoirs, popular histories, and a Ken Burns documentary. Significantly, we’ve been forced to revisit it on account of the rise of Donald Trump. In May of 1989, in an early phase of his eruption from local nuisance to global menace, Trump took out a full-page newspaper ad agitating for the execution of these five children. This incident takes up a lot of oxygen in the second episode. “They need to keep that bigot off TV,” one character says. It is relevant to the plot and necessary to the atmosphere that this “real-estate hustler” should rear his head. But, seeing the series in the cold shadow of Trump’s Presidency, we find ourselves doubly fatigued, watching a nightmare still going on, at a larger scale, while the need for urgent action overwhelms the desire for subtlety.