The Story of the Central Park Five.
Is It Worth Watching? Absolutely! Watch it NOW!
When They See Us is all that is good about Netflix. It’s the kind of thought-provoking drama that the public needs right now with the rise of right-wing populism. Stranger Things and the Marvel series are entertaining, yes, but it’s shows like When They See Us which stay with you. The ones you suddenly think of in the middle of the day. The ones that make you cry and scream at the TV. No surprises then that it has picked up sixteen Emmy nominations.
When They See Us is based on real life events where five boys, Black and Hispanic — branded the Central Park Five — are wrongly accused of raping and assaulting a white woman. The youngest of them only fourteen. The show doesn’t start with the usual proclamation: “Based on a true story.” So, as you watch the boys being beaten into confessing, harassed in the court and trapped into the legal system, you sit there and hope this is all made up. That no civilised society would rightly condemn five young boys to years of prison just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and of the wrong colour. Police efforts are focused not on going after the real perpetrators but on manipulating evidence to pin it on the boys who had congregated in Central Park. Prosecutors are more concerned about their careers than the destruction of five innocent lives. It is the summing up of the lives of the minority in 1989 America.
What makes When They See Us stand out is the way the four episodes of this mini series are narrated. The first episode relates the incident in Central Park, the second the trial, the third follows four of the boys after they complete their prison sentence and the last details the ordeal of Korey Wise who, being sixteen, was sent to Rikers Island. The tension and suspense at the trial is palpable even as you know what the outcome is going to be. Similarly, you can feel the pain and frustration of not just these children but every member of their family who seem helpless in the face of this injustice.
The five young boys completely steal the show even when sharing the screen with Vera Farmiga (Up In The Air, The Conjuring), Joshua Jackson (The Affair, Dawson’s Creek) and Felicity Huffman (Transamerica, Desperate Housewives) who must have recorded this before the whole college admissions scandal. To be honest, if she were to go to prison, this wouldn’t be a bad program to end her career on. Asante Blackk who plays young Kevin Richardson, the youngest of the five boys, was my favourite. His innocence broke my heart. Jharrel Jerome of Moonlight fame is also stunning as Korey Wise. Both Blackk and Wise have won themselves well-deserved Emmy nominations.
When They See Us shines a spotlight on the current American experimentation in incarceration: mass incarceration. It has been widely proven to be ineffective and concentrates mainly on the young African American population in disadvantaged areas. The shows points out how prejudiced evaluation of a situation can cause underprivileged members of the society to be wrongfully imprisoned. One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys—compared to one of every 17 white boys. These statistics are chilling and even more so when you realise that some of these boys would be charged for crimes they wouldn’t have committed. While the boys are on trial, a clip’s shown of Donal Trump calling to bring back death penalty. A woman says to a worried mother, ‘Don’t worry, his fifteen minutes are up.’ If only!
One of the best things about When They See Us is its awesome soundtrack. The mini film is framed by the opening song I Got It Made by Special Ed released in 1989 and the last song Moon River by Frank Ocean released in 2018. According to creator and director Ava DuVernay, these songs signify the twenty-nine years that have passed since the incident and the fact that there are still issues with this case that remain unresolved. Each track ties the scene with its characters and their emotions. My favourite is Love and Hate by Michael Kiwanuka (Cold Little Heart) played during the trial. And there’s another Emmy nomination for Outstanding Music Composition.
There is a tie-in program where the real Central Park Five chat to Oprah Winfrey about their experience, called Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now.