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Ava DuVernay’s ‘When They See Us’ Is a Blistering, Vital Study in Empathy

And a damning indictment of journalism’s privilege bias

In her new Netflix series When They See Us, filmmaker Ava DuVernay shows the audience an undeniable truth for people of color in America: Our life stories get shaped by the stories other people tell, as well as the ones they prefer to believe. In fact, at one point early in the four-part series, a lawyer for one of the wrongfully arrested black and Latino boys says in a meeting between the boys’ various lawyers, “What we need to do more of is control the narrative.” This is a central challenge before every person of color in America. This is our enduring struggle. It’s also our path to freedom.

When They See Us centers on a trial. It’s a very famous court case. It’s the story of the Exonerated Central Park Five. Their names are Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr. and Antron McCray. The casting of the teens’ parts is commendable. The performances that DuVernay elicits from the youthful actors are absolutely mesmerizing. They can do a lot with just a look, a silence, a held pain. So much so that at numerous points I had to remind myself that these were young actors.

In real life, they were 14-, 15- and 16-year-old black and brown boys from Harlem, wrongfully arrested and prosecuted for a rape they did not commit. The injustice they endured is an indictment of the NYPD, legal system and media.

It wasn’t until years later, that justice was served, after the real rapist came forward. He was inspired to tell the truth after he personally witnessed, in prison, the injustice being waged against one of the five boys. It was a chance meeting that led to his freedom and their collective exoneration. The real rapist saw how Wise had been paying for his sins. Once the real rapist’s confession led to their exoneration, to compensate Wise for the injustice done to him and the other four boys, the City of New York was forced by a court order to pay a $41 million settlement. The only means for the injustice to be made right was with a narrative. A confession. A true story.

Ultimately, what is a trial but a competition of stories? The prosecution presents their version of events, which they corroborate with evidence gathered by the police. The defense attorney does the same. The judge presides over the court case. And the jury draws conclusions and decides which story it believes — and what they’re willing to believe. The latter half informs a key aspect of justice: reasonable doubt.

They see the defendant(s). And when they see them, they tell themselves a story about them. As one character says of the boys’ jury, which mirrored headlines of the day, “They will see a wolf pack.” This story then determines who the jury chooses to believe and who they choose to doubt, reasonably. We call this process of biased storytelling “justice.”

What makes DuVernay’s handling of the Exonerated Central Park Five’s story so undeniably powerful is how she focuses on the trial and injustice not as a series of unfortunate events but as a competition of stories. The conflicts she shows exist between all the stories being told. Childhoods are lost when prosecutors choose to twist facts and timelines to suit the needs of the damning story they intend to tell. Lives are irrevocably broken and reshaped based solely on stories that are colored by racist bias, personal ambition and a desire for blood and vengeance. Not, of course, truth. Not facts. Just stories.

Ironically, the facts of the case are straightforward: A 28-year-old white woman, Trisha Meili, was jogging in Central Park at night. She was attacked, brutally beaten, raped and left for dead. At roughly the same time, a group of 20 to 30 young black and brown boys were also in Central Park. When police heard initial reports of a raped white woman, the black and brown boys got blamed for the attack.

The opening episode of When They See Us provides us glimpses of life before that fateful night. We see the boys and the innocence they’re about to have ripped from them. As night falls, DuVernay’s camera shows us how this doomed collection of teens, some friends and other strangers are thrown together in their pursuit of excitement, fun and teenage mischief. Basically, what kids their age all around the world seek out — some kinda feeling that relieves boredom and teenage anxieties.

DuVernay wisely draws on the court record to show various incidences that will later stoke the fires of misfortune and lead to testimony against the boys. A young white couple rides a tandem bike, passing the group and they get heckled by the teens. A middle-aged white man pops off and gets punched. The violence is sudden and surprising. None of the boys later arrested are involved. In the context of the times, it feels like the moment is born of the combustible frictions of the social tensions of New York in the 1980s.

These same social tensions come through deftly in the music that DuVernay selects for the fateful night. Early on, there’s Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend.” Later, as the group of boys streams into the park, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power booms across the soundtrack. The hip-hop tracks give the scenes the proper context, energy and beat. The Public Enemy song also serves as a sly reference to Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, released the same year as the events shown. It’s one of many respectful allusions to Lee’s New York films.

After the rape in the park gets reported to police, we see through DuVernay’s lens how NYPD cops descend on the park and chase the boys through the night. They hunt them down like animals. One bright and shy boy, Kevin Richardson, a promising trumpet player, gets run down by a cop who smashes the boy in the face with his cop helmet. One of the other boys, Antron McCray, witnesses this from the spot where he’s hiding. It’s a brutal sight to see a man use his full-force to knock a boy unconscious like that. But it’s not at all brutal to the cop. He doesn’t see a boy. He sees an animal. And cops put problematic animals down, without hesitation.

Thus, the title When They See Us. It’s the sort of half-finished phrase that begs the mind to complete it. To wit, when they see us…

…they see a threat.
…they see a criminal.
…they see a thug.
…they see a need for increased police presence.
…they don’t see innocence.
…they don’t see children who deserve to be protected.
…they don’t see our humanity.
…they don’t see themselves in us.

These are just some of the many themes DuVernay explores. The consequences are devastating. When They See Us is an incredible study in empathy. It’s impossible to watch and not to feel for the boys — which is the exact opposite of what happened to them in reality. When it mattered most, those who took oaths to protect and serve, those who swore to uphold the law, didn’t see boys who needed protection from a terrified, vengeful city. As characters in the series say repeatedly, they saw animals.

DuVernay puts in the work to make sure the audience understands that New York in the 1980s was dramatically different than it is today. (Yet not as different as some want to believe.) At the start of the second episode, she frames the episode with a Greek chorus of media voices. This all-seeing chorus isn’t unbiased though. It’s a melange of journalists’ bias of the day. This gives way to one strident voice:

“Details didn’t matter because there was no script. They were coming downtown from a world of crack and welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance. They were coming from a land of no fathers. They were coming from the wild province of the poor, and driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teeming with the violent images of the streets in the movies. They had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stalk and rape. Their enemies were rich…”

The journalist character is reading his own newspaper copy aloud. He stops, pauses to think, and says, “…and then I need another, for emphasis.”

His waiting editor, listening to the copy, cuts to the chase: racial fear. “Their enemies were white,” he instructs.

Later in the episode, coloring inside that same theme, DuVernay draws on a familiar face. We see our current president Donald Trump, as he was back then — before the White House, before Celebrity Apprentice, back when he was a vain Manhattan real estate mogul who liked to call Howard Stern’s radio show. In response to the highly publicized news of the rape of a 28-year old white woman jogger in Central Park, Trump paid $85,000 to run full-page ads in four New York papers: the Times, the Post, Newsday and the Daily News. In the ads, which were nothing more than racist fearmongering, Trump stated, “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”

DuVernay makes use of a contemporaneous interview with NBC News, as Trump says on TV, “I think sometimes a black may think they don’t have an advantage or this and that. I’ve said on occasion, even about myself, if I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black, because I really believe they do have an actual advantage.”

In 1989, Trump wasn’t the only New York-New Jersey public persona who blamed the ills of the city on its black and brown children either. For instance, here’s what New Jersey Democratic Senator Bill Bradley had to say about the media reports of the black and brown teens out “wilding” in the park: “You rob a store, rape a jogger, shoot a tourist, and when they catch you, if they catch you… you cry racism. And nobody, white or black, says stop.” In other words, this racist view that people of color were what bedeviled New York in the 1980s was a pernicious lie told by those on the left and the right.

There’s a particular scene in When They See Us then that I wish every white person heard and fully understood — not just the bigots and middle-of-the-road types, but also self-professed allies, too. In it, Joshua Jackson, playing defense attorney Mickey Joseph, holds a respectful confrontation in the hallway outside the courtroom with the prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer, played by Vera Farmiga (whose frizzy 1980s perm is doing everything it can to steal the show, but Farmiga steals it right back with her performance). Jackson’s defense attorney casually, morally, pleads with her, “Do those kids you’re so eager to put into jail a favor. Just give ’em a fair fight. From now on… just fight fair. That’s all we ask.”

That’s it. That’s all we ever ask of justice. Just give us a fair fight. To do that you have to be able to see us. To see us as human beings, as equals, as children, as innocent before proven guilty. Basically, you have to believe that those things can be a true story, too.

DuVernay has used all the tools at her disposal to masterfully show audiences that justice and violence and compassion each start with the stories we tell ourselves. She also shows how they each can end with the stories that we tell ourselves. Perhaps the most timeless message DuVernay leaves us with is the theme that animates the prison scenes when Korey Wise is locked away in solitary, grasping at sanity by reliving lost moments from his past and the stolen innocence of his childhood: Sometimes we must tell ourselves stories just to survive the stories of others. And this, too, can become a form of freedom.