When They See Us review: A timely story of one of New York’s most notorious wrongful conviction cases that skewers Trump’s contribution

Ava DuVernay’s four-part series, which portrays the relentlessness of a broken justice system, consistently strikes the right chord  

Clémence Michallon
Friday 31 May 2019 14:11 BST
Ava DuVernay's four-part Netflix series tackles the Central Park Five case of 1989
Ava DuVernay's four-part Netflix series tackles the Central Park Five case of 1989 (Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix)

On the evening of 19 April 1989, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old banker, went for a run in Central Park. As she followed her usual jogging route, Meili was attacked, raped and beaten almost to death. Shortly afterward, five teenagers – Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise – were taken into custody and accused of the crimes. Their arrest marked the beginning of one of the highest-profile judicial cases ever tried in New York City – one that seemed to end with the conviction of the Central Park Five, as they came to be known, in 1990 but kept going first until 2002, when convicted murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the attack and was backed up by DNA evidence, then until 2014, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio settled a $41m wrongful conviction lawsuit with the five men.

With When They See Us, Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) tells a crucial story, bringing to life one of the most notorious wrongful conviction cases New York City has ever seen. The Central Park Five case is a staple of the city’s psyche; even if you’re not a native New Yorker, it will most likely start occupying a part of your conscience within your first couple of years in the city. It was the subject of a documentary, titled simply The Central Park Five, in 2012. When They See Us tells the story of the five teenagers in a relentless, unforgiving manner, making us feel the profound injustice of the five boys’ stolen destinies, while bringing us behind the scenes as the prosecution builds its case against them.

The story begins with the crime itself. We watch helplessly as Richardson (Asante Blackk), McCray (Caleel Harris), Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Wise (Jharrel Jerome) and Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), all black or Latino teenagers from Harlem, get pulled into the case. We see forced, coerced confessions. We see the boys scramble to piece together a narrative that they (falsely) believe will please the detectives and keep them out of jail. We watch them turn against each other in utter confusion. We watch as the five teenagers are brought to court and convicted after an infuriating string of events.

The police scenes make for profoundly painful viewing, and going through DuVernay’s miniseries with the benefit of hindsight makes them all the more excruciating. Her cast keeps the story moving forward; Felicity Huffman (seen in her first role since she was charged as part of the ongoing college admissions scandal in the US) gives an energetic performance as Linda Fairstein, the head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office’s sex crimes unit, who leads the prosecution’s efforts to convict the young men. John Leguizamo is touching as Raymond Santana’s caring father. All the teens’ relatives, in fact (Kylie Bunbury, Aunjanue Ellis, Niecy Nash and Michael K Williams), are deeply moving in their efforts to care for and protect them despite the justice system.

DuVernay’s four-episode series is a darkly-filmed tale that sometimes reads like a courtroom drama and expertly alternates between tense, moving and, at times, lighter-hearted moments. Its second episode sheds a needed spotlight on Donald Trump, then a New York City real estate tycoon who was just beginning to cement his place in pop culture (later securing cameos in such works as Home Alone 2, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Nanny). Trump’s involvement in the Central Park Five case has taken on new relevance in light of his presidency.

DuVernay reminds us that prior to the five teenagers’ conviction, he took out full-page advertisements in the city’s four major newspapers, advocating for a restoration of the death penalty for the case. The man who would later ascend to the White House spent an estimated $85,000 (£67,380) to make his point. DuVernay uses old tapes of real interviews given by Trump, reminding us that, yes, this all really happened and, yes, the man who’s currently the president of the United States really said those things. “I’ve said on more than one occasion, even about myself, if I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black because I really believe that they do have an actual advantage today,” Trump says in a 1989 NBC News interview.

“They need to keep that bigot off TV is what they need to do,” says Sharone Salaam in what reads like a chilling, belated warning of what will happen if Trump keeps receiving ample screentime. “That devil … that devil wants to kill my son,” the mother adds in one of the show’s most poignant moments. “You’re going to take an ad out about killing my son?”

The series also holds the press accountable for its readiness to believe the profoundly racist narrative of five bloodthirsty teenagers descending from Harlem to attack white, wealthy Manhattanites. Throughout her four episodes, which vary in length from just over an hour to a little under 90 minutes, DuVernay consistently strikes the right chord, portraying the relentlessness of a broken justice system. The result is an informative, gripping watch coming at just the right time.

When They See Us is available to stream on Netflix from 31 May

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