What To Watch This Week: When They See Us
It’s Based On A True Story
In the late 80s, it was the trial that gripped the US and whipped the media into a frenzy. Now new drama When They See Us chronicles the notorious case of five teenagers of colour, labelled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four-part series focuses on five teens from Harlem – Antron McCray, 15, Kevin Richardson, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, Raymond Santana, 14, and Korey Wise, 16. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the boys were first questioned about the rape of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old who was jogging in the park when she was attacked, the series spans 25 years, highlighting the five men’s exoneration in 2002 and the $41m settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.
There Are Some Big Names Behind It
This new dramatisation comes from Ava DuVernay, the same director as The 13th – a must-watch Netflix documentary which explores the history of racial inequality in the US, focusing on the fact that the nation's prisons are disproportionately filled with African Americans. DuVernay also directed historical drama Selma, which focuses on the life of Martin Luther King, played by David Oyelowo. She was also behind last year’s Disney film A Wrinkle In Time, becoming the first black-American woman to direct a film that earned at least $100m in the States. Away from the director’s chair When They See Us was co-produced by none other than Oprah Winfrey.
It Tackles The US Justice System
In episode one, we meet the young boys and witness the abuse they face at the hands of the police. It’s this mistreatment – which includes no food or toilet breaks, and guardians being dismissed from the room – which leads the five into being coerced to enter false statements confessing to the vicious attack in Central Park. The twisted methods the police use to break the boys – one just 14 years old – is truly horrifying to witness.
In episode two, the backdrop switches to that of the courtroom. As the case stirs tensions nationwide, the families of the boys and their lawyers prepare for a bitter legal fight against the city of New York. Two trials see a lack of evidence or witnesses to support the prosecution – but a prejudiced judge and jury convict them anyway.
The penultimate episode concentrates on Raymond, Antron, Yusef and Kevin, who all spend time across various juvenile prisons. Years later, the four men emerge to a changed world, and battle to hold down jobs and return to normalcy as convicted sex offenders.
The final episode focuses on Korey, who – aged 16 when convicted – spends his sentence in various adult prisons, most of them hundreds of miles from home. It ends with the confession from the real rapist – a convicted serial sexual predator whose DNA was found at the scene of the crime – and the men’s exoneration in 2002.
The Cast Do The Five Men Proud
Each of the boys – apart from Korey, the oldest of the group – are played by two different actors, who portray them in their teens and later in their 20s and 30s. Korey is played by Jharrel Jerome, one of the stars of Oscar-winning drama Moonlight. Elsewhere, relative newcomers Caleel Harris (Antron McCray), Ethan Herisse (Yusef Salaam), Asante Blackk (Kevin Richardson) and Marquis Rodriguez (Raymond Santana) leave a mark as boys in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whether being interrogated at the police station or shamed in the dock, the five truly capture the terror of being wrongly convicted.
When the boys become men, well-known actors Jovan Adepo (adult Antron) – who starred in Denzel Washington’s Fences and The Leftovers – and Chris Chalk (older Yusef) – who has previously starred in Detroit, 12 Years a Slave and Gotham – really make an impact.
When it comes to the courtroom, Desperate Housewives’ Felicity Kauffman is astonishing as Linda Fairstein, the head of the sex crimes unit at the office of Manhattan’s District Attorney. The woman who oversaw the prosecution of the Central Park Five, Kauffman really shows viewers the prejudice and racism inherent in the department. When she declares “Every black boy in that park is a suspect”, you know exactly how the situation will play out. On the other side of the courtroom is Dawson’s Creek’s Joshua Jackson, who plays is Micky Joseph – Antron’s passionate and sympathetic defence lawyer.
Full credit must go to the boys’ helpless parents – most of all Michael K. Williams (best known for his roles in The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) who plays Bobby McCray, the father of Antron, with real poignancy. As a black man who’s already encountered the prison system in his youth, his despair at his young son’s plight is heart-wrenching.
The Case Still Rumbles On
The trial’s results – and consequent collapse – continue to polarise opinion in New York with many, including President Trump, still arguing the five men were responsible for the crime – despite the lack of evidence, witnesses and the subsequent confession. In episode two, we witness a young Donald Trump – then a real estate developer – pay $85,000 to take out full-page adverts in four of NYC’s biggest papers, declaring the five boys should face the death penalty. In 2016, Trump made a statement at one of his presidential rallies, continuing to accuse the five men of being would-be murderers.
As DuVernay’s The 13th showcases, this prejudice is still inherent across the US justice system, and America is still a country marred by racial tensions. Whether you’re a fan of true crime dramas or not, this fictional retelling is an eye-opening watch which focuses on those who have suffered most at the hands of the law. A powerful series.
When They See Us is available to watch on Netflix now.
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