Ava DuVernay’s ‘When They See Us’

When They See Us cast and real men

I have many “radical” beliefs and opinions, with the most revolutionary being the abolition of all prisons in the world. There are many reasons for my support in eliminating incarceration facilities including the relationship between prisons and slavery, unequal sentencing for marginalized communities, prison violence, and innocent imprisoned people, and there is perhaps no greater evidence for prison abolition than the case of the Central Park Five. Writer and director Ava DuVernay documents the devastating experience of five Black and Brown boys who were wrongfully accused and incarcerated for a rape they did not commit in 1989 in her new Netflix miniseries ‘When They See Us.’ Kevin Richardson (14 years old), Antron McCray (15 years old), Yusef Salaam (15 years old), Raymond Santana (14 years old), and Korey Wise (16 years old) were just boys when they were arrested in New York City after a white woman had been severely beaten and raped in Central Park. The head of the NYPD sex crimes unit, a white woman named Linda Fairstein, called for the arrest and detaining of all Black and Brown boys who were in the park at the same time as the crime was committed, despite not knowing who the actual assailant was. When the boys were detained, they were questioned for nearly two days straight without eating, drinking water, using the bathroom, or having their parents and/or lawyers present.

Part One of ‘When They See Us’ shows DuVernay’s reimagination of the beginning of their nightmare as each boy is beaten and brutalized by detectives, coerced and forced into providing false confessions. Antron McCray’s own father was even blackmailed into demanding his son admit to the crime as detectives threatened to reveal his former incarceration status to his employer. All of the boys pleaded with the cops for their innocence to be believed and begged to go home, but they were already presumed guilty. Once the cops decided to convince each boy that the fabricated stories were true, they taped the children’s coerced confessions and used them as admissions of guilt. The first episode ends with the boys meeting for the first time and apologizing to each other for lying about their involvement, or lack thereof, in their holding cell.

The second episode of ‘When They See Us’ focuses on the trials of the boys and their lawyers’ failings to prove their innocence to the court. It also shows how unjust the cash bail system is as Kevin, Raymond, and Korey were kept in jail up until the trial because their families couldn’t afford to gather enough bail money, while Antron and Yusef’s parents collected enough from donations or church sharings. At the end of Part Two, the jury finds all five boys guilty of rape, assault, and attempted murder.

‘When They See Us’ episode three shows Kevin, Antron, Yusef, and Raymond growing up in prison and how their survival was built upon their close familial ties before they are released. The majority of the episode reveals their struggles upon release, including parole rules, registering as sex offenders, and reentry challenges such as finding stable jobs and available housing. The episode also touches on the difficulties of incarceration for family members as Kevin’s sister admits she didn’t want to feel happiness or love while he was wrongfully imprisoned and Yusef’s mom discusses the hardships of finding money to pay for his phone calls from the juvenile facility. At the close of Part Three, Raymond is arrested for selling drugs when he can’t find a job or enough money to get his own apartment.

Part Four of ‘When They See Us’ completely shattered me because Ava DuVernay wrote an extremely raw and painful 90 minute episode focusing solely on Korey’s experience as a 16 year old boy in an adult prison on Riker’s Island. Korey’s story in particular was so devastating because he wasn’t even on NYPD’s list of boys to round up. He was only taken to the jail because he agreed to go with his childhood friend Yusef, who was on the list, so he could make sure the boy was okay. He didn’t know that he would never see the sunlight for 14 years. While in prison, Korey was subject to the most violent beatings by both guards and other incarcerated men before he was put in solitary confinement and nearly lost his mind. This last episode of ‘When They See Us’ was so incredibly devastating and heart breaking, but it, as well as the whole series, should be required viewing for every person, especially those who have no experience with policing, the criminal justice system, and/or the prison industrial complex.

Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise were just baby boys when they were unjustly imprisoned for seven to 14 years. Although they were exonerated in 2014 and awarded a $41 million settlement, the city of New York refused to admit any wrongdoing during the case, Linda Fairstein is a best selling mystery novel author living on the Upper East Side, and head prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer is a law professor at Columbia. The exonerated five men had their entire lives taken from them and it’s important to remember that their devastating and wrongful experiences are not uncommon and that there are many others, specifically Black and Brown people, with similar stories. I hope you’ll all watch ‘When They See Us’, read more about the real Central Park Five, and research the atrocities of the criminal justice system and the prison system and maybe you too will see that we need more than just reform.