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Ava DuVernay uses real history to damn the present in Netflix’s When They See Us

Trump’s involvement in the case — and refusal to change his mind — is just a cipher for America.

Caleel Harris in When They See Us.
Caleel Harris in When They See Us.
Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for May 26 through June 1 is the Netflix limited series When They See Us.

In March, Netflix announced that the name of Ava DuVernay’s forthcoming limited series about an infamous 1989 rape case and its racially charged aftermath would be changed from Central Park Five (as the group of young men accused of the crime are commonly called) to When They See Us. Now that the series is here, it’s clear why.

When They See Us (which premiered on Netflix on May 31) richly understands that in America — a country that makes sense of itself through images on screens — who you appear to be matters far more than who you actually are.

The “us” of the title is the five young teens (four black, one Latino) with whom the story is chiefly concerned, who came to be known as the Central Park Five: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. (Ken Burns made a well-crafted documentary about them in 2012; they were also the focus of one of Joan Didion’s most famous essays, published in 1991.) They were between the ages of 14 and 16 in 1989, when they were accused, coerced into confessing, and convicted of beating and raping a woman jogging in Central Park.

Aunjanue Ellis and Ethan Herisse in When They See Us.
Aunjanue Ellis and Ethan Herisse in When They See Us.
Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

The series is in four parts, each running between 60 and 90 minutes and covering some aspect of the larger story. The first episode is concerned with the forced confessions; the second covers the trial. Episode three follows the four members of the group who served time in the juvenile system (as they were under 16 when convicted) and the struggles they encountered when they tried to return to normal life. The fourth explores the experience of the fifth, who was 16 and convicted as an adult, and the circumstances that led to the convictions being vacated in 2002.

The whole series is great, but the second episode was particularly arresting. I was taken with how clearly it shows why public opinion, and the justice system, turned against the five for so long. And in so doing, it makes it clear that the arrests and the events following never should have happened. The boys barely knew one another; their confessions were inconsistent with one another, and in some cases, even their individual testimonies would change; DNA in semen found on a sock near the scene did not match any of the defendants. No matter: A white woman had been brutalized, and America demanded someone to punish.

And in this case, perhaps unsurprisingly to today’s viewer, America was crystallized in the form of ... Donald Trump.

In its second episode, When They See Us makes a special point of Trump’s involvement in the case

DuVernay has lit into Trump before over his long history of casual dehumanization of black and brown people in America. One of the most jarring and telling sequences in her 2016 documentary 13th, released on Netflix mere weeks before Trump’s election, cuts together then-candidate Trump’s rally statements about what “they” used to do about protesters in “the good ol’ days” and his supporters’ violence against those protesters with footage of attacks on demonstrators during the civil rights era.

But none of that should have been news to anyone. On May 1, 1989, as the case was headed to trial, then-real estate developer Trump spent about $85,000 placing a full-page ad in four newspapers, calling (in so many words) for the young men accused of the crime to be executed.

“BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” the ad proclaimed in enormous capital letters. Below, in smaller text, Trump ranted, “I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them … I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.”

The boys were not specifically mentioned in the ad, but lest anyone doubt what he meant, Trump soon went on CNN to explain himself to Larry King. “I had some woman the other day stick a microphone in my face from one of the major networks: ‘But don’t you have compassion for these young men? That raped and beat and mugged and everything else this wonderful woman?’” he told King during the interview. “Do I have hatred for them?”

He answered his own question: ”And I said, look, this woman was raped, mugged, and thrown off a building — thrown off a building on top of everything else ... I said, ‘Of course I hate these people, and let’s all hate these people, because maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done.”

Asante Blackk in When They See Us.
Asante Blackk in When They See Us.
Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

As part of a series on race in America aired later that year, NBC News interviewed Trump, who said that he wished he were black:

A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market. And, I think, sometimes a black may think that they don’t really have the advantage or this or that but in actuality today, currently, it’s, uh, it’s a, it’s a great. 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 today.

DuVernay places this NBC interview at the beginning of the second episode of When They See Us. It’s on a TV, and two black women are watching, including the mother of one of the boys. They watch in silence, and then she turns to the other woman.

“What is ‘a black’?” she says.

“I don’t know,” the other woman replies. “But hell, maybe he’s right. Sometimes you gotta ask yourself, when is the white man gonna get a break in this country?” They laugh, mirthlessly.

“They need to keep that bigot off TV is what they need to do,” the first woman says.

“Don’t worry about it,” the second replies. “His 15 minutes is almost up.” She sips from her glass.

After a moment, the boy’s mother speaks again. “They want to kill my son,” she says. “That devil — that devil wants to kill my son. You gonna take an ad out about killing my son.”

It is, in a way, a bit heavy-handed — a nod to the unpleasant future in which “that devil,” as the show puts it, would be in charge. But the scene also contains a larger truth that’s significant to the series.

When They See Us looks through the past to damn the present

In When They See Us, people are always being watched — especially the five teenagers caught in the crosshairs of a media storm, fanned by a news media that chose loaded words like “pack” when referring to the group. What the series makes clear is that the way the boys were perceived during their trials mattered, because it was easy for the media circus, or people like Donald Trump, to paint a group of black and brown teenage boys as predators who targeted an innocent white woman.

What happened where they couldn’t be seen — the rooms in which they were interrogated, the prisons where they were kept — wasn’t in the public eye, and thus wasn’t part of how they were viewed by the watching world. Nothing fit the predetermined narrative, and the narrative is what mattered, more than justice.

A scene outside the courtroom scene, later in the second episode, underlines this. An expert witness has given information on the stand that suggests the boys are innocent. Jubilant, one member of the defense team confronts the prosecutor, asking if she will back off and apologize in the name of justice. “It’s no longer about justice, counselor,” she replies, to his shock. “It’s about politics. And politics is about survival. And there’s nothing fair about survival.”

What DuVernay’s series does is try to snatch the image collectively created by a country’s fevered imagination back from history and recreate it as a story about five men and their families. They were shoehorned into a narrative that would satiate a fearful country hungry for someone to blame. In place of simply a story about the boys, she gives us a story about ourselves.

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

In 2002 — the group now more than a decade older — the story changed. The convictions against the Central Park Five were vacated after DNA evidence conclusively showed that Matias Reyes, a serial rapist who was already serving a life sentence in prison on other charges, had in fact committed the crime. Reyes encountered Korey Wise in prison (shown in the fourth episode) and subsequently confessed to the rape in Central Park too.

The five men were cleared of blame. In 2003, they sued the city of New York; after stalling for a decade under Mayor Bloomberg, the city (now under Mayor Bill De Blasio) finally settled with the defendants in 2014 for $40 million.

But that didn’t matter, because some people still refused to see them, to allow the men to be who they are, not who they wanted them to be. In 2014, after the settlement was announced, Donald Trump — a year away from announcing his candidacy for president — was incensed enough to write an editorial for the New York Daily News calling the decision “a disgrace.”

“Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels,” he wrote of the exonerated men. “What about all the people who were so desperately hurt and affected? I hope it’s not too late to continue to fight and that this unfortunate event will not have a repeat episode any time soon — or ever.”

In October 2016, after one of the men, Yusef Salaam, said that the five were still seeking an apology from the then-candidate, Trump issued a statement to CNN that defied both decency and the facts: “They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”

A month later, he was elected president.

The “Central Park Five” Discuss Their Settlement With City Over Wrongful Conviction
Kevin Richardson, one of the Central Park Five, discusses his conviction after settling with the city of New York in 2014.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Which beckons us to revisit the title of the series. In some sense, the “us” of When They See Us is all of us: America. Revisiting history through filmmaking — even well-known and well-publicized stories like that of the Central Park Five — often results in making people look much worse in hindsight. How could they have been so backward? we think. How could they have been so oblivious?

But DuVernay’s series explicitly draws the line from past to present, with a gaze that forces us to once again reevaluate how we see whoever it is we look at, and whose glasses we choose to peer through. And it reminds us that when “they” see “us” — future generations looking back at us — they may be stunned at what they find, or maybe at how little has changed.

When they see us, what will they see?

When They See Us is streaming on Netflix.