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Director Ava DuVernay by Marie Maye at AFI Film Festival. CCA 3.0 Unported license.
Director Ava DuVernay by Marie Maye at AFI Film Festival. CCA 3.0 Unported license.

DVD Review:
When They See Us

Jun 25, 2019
by Diane McCurdy, Film and Book Reviews


Ava DuVernay is a rara avis. Not only is she one of only a few female film directors she is a black female film director. First coming to national notice with the searing drama, Selma, she proved her versatility by helming the fantasy, Wrinkle in Time. Also notable is her documentary, 13th, whose premise rests on the supposition that our prison system is a perpetuation of black slavery. When They See Us is DuVernay's latest, a miniseries on Netflix unfolding in four separate segments that reveals the story of the Central Park Five. 

Court sketches from trial. photo:

The docudrama recounts the apprehension and subsequent incarceration of five boys, four black and one Latino. In the early Spring of 1989, a large group of meandering teens were congregating in Central Park in New York. Rowdy and mischievous, they were not angels. The police were called to disperse them. In this piece and in another documentary that preceded it, it seems five youngsters were selected almost randomly as scapegoats. Coincidentally and unfortunately a jogger was raped, beaten, thrown into the bushes and left for dead on that same night. The unlucky five who were caught were kept without food and water and badgered, intimidated, threatened and lied to, in order to obtain confessions. The kids were terrified to the point where they would have admitted anything. Nothing linked them to the crime: no blood, no fingerprints, no DNA.

The jogger, Trisha Meili hovered between life and death. She remembered nothing of the attack. The semen in her did not match any of the boys.Enter Donald Trump.He paid for full page ads in New York newspapers advocating for the reinstatement of the death penalty so the five could be executed. His brief cameo, captured on a TV screen characterizes him as a buffoon, a point not belabored but well-taken. When New Yorkers whipped into mob mentality find the five guilty, the four younger boys are sent to juvenile detention and the older one is removed to the notorious Riker's Island prison. We follow his story in detail in the last episode. 

Felicity Huffman plays the prosecutor in the Manhattan D A's office who seems surrealistically compelled to seek a conviction. The irony here is that Huffman will be in court herself having been involved in the college entrance manipulation scandal. Vera Farmiga is the other prosecuting attorney and John Leguizamo is the father of the Latino youngster. The other actors are lesser known but competent especially the five who are able to convey the overwhelming fear they felt on that fateful night when in custody. 

Court sketches from trial. photo:

To this day the DA and the police department admit to no wrong doing even though years later Matias Reyes having met one of the five in prison and after experiencing a kind of epiphany confessed to the crime he had committed alone. His DNA matched that found on Ms. Meili. The five were exonerated and received 41 million dollars in compensation. But what price can be put on the theft of a childhood? 

Slow in parts and with odd cinematography that is brightly backlit making actors, at times, appear almost in silhouette, the series begs to be seen. It hovers between entertainment and atonement, an indictment of our judicial system.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay says she receives a couple dozen tweets a day from people asking her to make a movie from their life story. But this #wishfulthinking tweet from Raymond Santana caught her eye:

Santana was one of five teens arrested for the 1989 assault and rape of a white woman in New York’s Central Park. The boys were pressured into false confessions and convicted. All served time. A murderer who was already serving a life sentence later confessed to the rape.

DuVernay remembers when it all happened: “I was a teenager on the West Coast when they were teenagers on the East Coast …” she says. “It meant a lot to be asked by them.”

Her Netflix miniseries 'When They See Us will was released Friday, May 31, 2019. A 2012 documentary called The Central Park Five also explores the wrongful conviction, but DuVernay says “there was more story to tell.”

“It was expansive to me,” she says. “It was a famous case that allowed me to interrogate all the different parts of the criminal justice system.” She sees this miniseries as a “companion piece” to her documentary 13th, which draws a line between slavery and mass incarceration.

Though DuVernay explores the larger criminal justice system, When They See Us also zooms in to show how incarceration fractures individual families.

“When you incarcerate one person, you’re incarcerating their family, their future, their community,” DuVernay says. “In the large numbers that we’re incarcerating people, you’re incarcerating a generation of people. … It’s something that we need to look at with knowledge of what it is — not just look at and say, ‘It’s a shame.’ “




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