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Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is a rich, enraging retelling of the Central Park Five case

The four-part Netflix series is essential viewing to understand today’s America.

Jharrel Jerome and Vera Farmiga in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us.
Jharrel Jerome and Vera Farmiga in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us.
Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Every week, new original films debut on Netflix and other streaming services, often to much less fanfare than their big-screen counterparts. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.

When They See Us

The premise: Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) co-wrote and directed all four episodes of this limited series about the infamous Central Park Five, in which five boys ages 14 to 16 — none of whom were white — were coerced into confessing to raping a jogger in 1989, then convicted of the crime in 1990. Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams, John Leguizamo, Vera Farmiga, Felicity Huffman, and many others round out the extensive cast.

What it’s about: The case of Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise has gotten the cinematic treatment before, in Ken Burns’s 2012 documentary The Central Park Five. But DuVernay’s series offers a different way into the story, one made for an age of true crime obsession — and not only is it compelling, but it’s desperately needed.

When They See Us tells the story in four parts, spanning decades. Before the title cards even appear in the first episode, the attack on Trisha Meili, who was jogging at night in New York City’s Central Park, has happened. The episode shows how all five boys, who barely knew one another, were caught up in the hunt for the attackers and pushed by the police into admitting to the crime, in confessions that are almost comically disjointed from one another.

In the second episode, the trial happens. In the third, four of the five boys — those who were not yet 16, and thus convicted as juveniles — go to jail, and then navigate life after release, where things aren’t much better. In the fourth and final episode, Wise — the only one who was convicted as an adult — struggles through a brutal prison sentence. In all, the five boys served between 6 and 13 years each. And even when their convictions are vacated in 2002, the years and the dignity that have been taken from them can’t be returned.

Donald Trump is a minor but key figure in the case: In 1989, as the case moved to trial, he spent about $85,000 of his own money to take out a full-page ad in New York City’s four major newspapers that called for the teenagers’ execution. “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer,” the ad read. “Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will. ... How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”

Trump’s ad and a subsequent TV appearance — in which he said, “You’d better believe I hate the people who did this,” meaning the boys — figure prominently into DuVernay’s treatment of the story, appearing several times throughout. In one bitterly ironic scene, two characters watch the interview and hope that Trump’s 15 minutes of fame will be over soon.

Twelve years after the boys’ conviction, the actual rapist confessed, and the young men were eventually exonerated after DNA from the rapist matched DNA found at the crime scene. (When asked about the case as recently as 2016, then-candidate Trump did not change his tune.)

All of these elements come together in When They See Us in service of a pointed theme. DuVernay has made a true crime series, with interlocking crimes. Part of it is concerned with discerning what really happened to Trisha Meili, but the rest considers the crime committed against the five young men. The criminal justice system is more committed to politics than the truth — and its master is plain, old-fashioned American racism.

Critical reception: When They See Us currently has a score of 89 on Metacritic. The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg praised the series, writing, “DuVernay, director and co-writer of every episode, approaches their story in ways that avoid typical triumph-over-adversity narrative tropes. She sometimes prioritizes the intellectual over the emotional or intentionally leaves big gaps in time and perspective. But her choices never feel haphazard. The material mines profound outrage, and the note-perfect ensemble lends it heart.”

Where to watch: When They See Us is streaming on Netflix.