Right from the early scenes in Netflix’s “When They See Us,” you know the miniseries is going to be painful. And that’s not because the scripted drama about the so-called Central Park Five of 1989 is poorly done. It’s because the four-parter is such a powerfully human take on one of our justice system’s most heinous blunders. Director and co-writer Ava DuVernay doesn’t appeal solely to our conscience; she goes for the emotional jugular, telling the specific stories of each of the five black and Latino boys who were railroaded into jail on charges of raping and beating a white woman. She transcends the media narrative of each of the accused 14- to 16-year-olds whom one character scornfully refers to as “the wilding boys.”
The miniseries will break any heart, except, perhaps, that of our president, who maintains their guilt despite the confession and DNA evidence that exonerated them in 2002 and led to a $41 million legal settlement from New York City. Knowing with certainty that the boys are innocent makes watching each step of their descent into hell — from the manipulated false confessions that open the miniseries and the damning group-think media coverage that follows, to the way their young promise is squashed by prison and the stigma that trails them once they’re released — into an unnervingly doom-ridden tragedy.
There is positivity in the drama, it must be said, in the parental loyalty and in the survival instincts that got the five through their sentences, which ranged from six to 13 years. And there is the ultimate victory, exoneration. But no one would confuse “When They See Us” with uplift of any kind. Indeed, the continued relevance of the story — which may have been one of DuVernay’s motives in making the miniseries — is depressing, as videos continue to emerge that show cops abusing black people. Likewise the manipulation of public narratives, which may be one of our biggest national problems. Before social media turned us into chum in the digital waters, viral disinformation was already rampant and ruining lives in this country.
Available on Friday, “When They See Us” doesn’t include a Trump character, and wisely so; any impersonation would distract from DuVernay’s deep dive into the lives of the boys during and after their arrests. Instead, she employs old news footage of the celebrity icon of 1980s greed, as he calls for the death penalty in paid ads in New York newspapers and on TV; she also throws in some dark humor. Hearing Trump argue for the death of her son on CNN, one of the mothers says to her friend, “They need to keep that bigot off TV is what they need to do.” Her friend’s response: “Don’t worry about it, his 15 minutes are almost up.”
The miniseries is beautifully structured so that, after the first hour, during which Felicity Huffman’s prosecutor Linda Fairstein refers to the boys as if they were all the same, as “animals,” it begins to turn them into individuals with families. They start the series as relatively faceless neighborhood kids, but by the end we know them, along with their families, who were also marked by the stigma. In between, the narrative is carefully fragmented — a shard of courtroom drama, a shard of family tension, a shard of prison conflict (and you can bet the white supremacists are particularly brutal to a black convicted of raping a white woman). DuVernay skips around, sacrificing some of the legal particulars and chronologies in order to maintain the intimacy and focus of her storytelling.
Two sets of actors play the five, first as boys and later as men, except in the case of Korey Wise, who is played by Jharrel Jerome of “Moonlight” and “Mr. Mercedes” as both a teen and an adult. All of them are remarkable; there’s not a glitch in the casting. Jerome is outstanding, driving home Korey’s soul-crushing coming-of-age in prison, with Niecy Nash as his struggling, religious mother. So is Freddy Miyares as the older Raymond Santana, whose inability to get a job drives him to deal drugs. Asante Blackk, as Kevin Richardson, has a baby face that drives home the youth of the boys at the time they were accused.
“When They See Us” is not the complete story of the case; to find something like that, you’d need to spend a few hours online, and also watch the documentary “The Central Park Five” by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. But the heart of the nightmare is here, delivered with compassion and respect.
WHEN THEY SEE US
Starring Asante Blackk, Justin Cunningham, Caleel Harris, Jovan Adepo, Ethan Herisse, Chris Chalk, Jharrel Jerome, Marquis Rodriguez, Freddy Miyares, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Kylie Bunbury, Aunjanue Ellis, Vera Farmiga, Felicity Huffman, John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams
On Netflix, available Friday