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Review | ‘When they See Us’ by Ava DuVernay Film & TV

'When They See Us', Ava DuVernay's four-part dramatised chronicling of the story of the Exonerated Five, is gut-wrenching but compelling viewing, writes Asim Qureshi.

Arts & Culture, Film & TV, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, July 25, 2019 16:17 - 0 Comments


Aunjanue Ellis and Ethan Herisse in When They See Us. (Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix)

When They See Us
Network: Netflix
First episode date: 31 May 2019
No. of episodes: 4
Director: Ava DuVernay

Editor’s Note: This review features spoilers

On the night of April 19, 1989, the battered unconscious body of Trisha Meili, a young white woman, was discovered in New York’s Central Park. The hunt for the perpetrators began and the case of “the Central Park jogger” soon gripped the nation. ‘When They See Us’, Ava Duvernay’s dramatised chronicling of the story of the Exonerated Five (commonly referred to as The Central Park Five), tells the story of how five young boys were wrongly arrested, convicted and sentenced for raping and beating Meili.

The four-part Netflix series has been making waves around the world, trending on Twitter and elsewhere, as people took to social media to voice their outrage at one of the most shocking gross miscarriages of justice in US history.

There are small parts of you that die as you watch each of the four parts of DuVernay’s utterly compelling series. Throughout the episodes you are left with the gut-wrenching knowledge that what you are about to witness is a descent into a place that these boys will not be able to escape. I would say that it is like watching a car crash in slow motion, but that would never do any justice to the perfidious way in which the boys were arrested, interrogated, coerced into giving false testimony, and ultimately prosecuted and found guilty by a jury — despite the lack of any evidence in the case against them.

Although the impact on his life is kept until the final part of the series, it is Korey Wise’s story that really hits home. The eldest of the boys, he was sent to an adult prison where he spent long periods in solitary confinement in order to protect himself from those who would wish him harm. As we watch him accompanying Yusef Salaam to the police station in the first episode, I was reminded of the line in The Green Mile uttered by John Coffeey:”He killed them with their love.”

It is an act of love by Korey Wise that makes him accompany Yusef to the police station. It is an act of love that will be familiar to many minority communities, who know the devastating blows that any interaction with the system can have on any of their number. It is this love, the desperate need to protect and to hold one of his own, that takes Korey to the place he least wants to go. You see it in his face, as he agrees to accompany a scared Yusef, but he goes regardless. This act of love, devastates his life in ways that can never be replaced or mended.

It is that same love that is used as a form of coercion against Antron McCray. His father, Bobby McCray, understands the violence of the system and is manic in his attempts to get his son to cooperate, with hope beyond hope — a hope that you scream at the screen for him not to trust — that somehow his insistence as a father will guide his son through.

As Antron’s father, Bobby has his own livelihood threatened if he does not force Antron to cooperate, impacting on his own sense of manhood, a feeling he will never be able to regain after he realises the extent to which he has harmed his own son. It is a sense of shame that he will carry throughout his life and into his death. With Bobby and Antron, they didn’t just kill them with their love, they killed the love between them.

It is almost impossible to quantify the manifold abuses that take place throughout the four episodes. I want to say something about the police officers, prosecutors, the district attorney, the judge and the jury, but I’ll refrain from doing so. The hate that they had for a group of young black children will never be greater than the love that these boys, now men, have for one another. There was never any justice in this case, not even in exoneration, because nothing you do can ever compensate adequately for what was lost.

I feel the importance of this show isn’t just in redressing a historical wrong. Its importance is in the knowledge that this is violence — a part of the everyday for minority communities in the United States. It was real for the Exonerated Five, and it continues to be real today. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son in ‘Between the World and Me’:

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

‘When They See Us’ is available on Netflix.

Asim Qureshi

Asim Qureshi graduated in Law (LLB Hons) and LLM, specialising in and Islamic Law. He is the Research Director at CAGE, and since 2004 has specialised in investigations into the impact of counter-terrorism practices worldwide. In 2009, his book, Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance, was published by Hurst, Columbia University Press and, later, by Oxford University Press. In 2010, he began advising the legal teams involved in defending terrorism trials in the US and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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