When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s four-episode dramatization of the true story of the Central Park Five—five boys of color between the ages of 14 and 16 who were coerced into confessing to a brutal rape they did not commit, and then were convicted of that crime—is impassioned, worthy, and at times very moving. It is also regularly excruciating. A particularly pointed example of a new kind of Must-See TV, When They See Us appeals not to our pleasure centers but to our higher minds, our civic responsibility, our duty to watch for the greater good. It challenges TV’s mandate to be fun: Does it really have to be? Might it entertain us—or educate or challenge us—in more complicated ways?
We already have a category of movies that we expect to artfully, if painfully edify—think of 12 Years a Slave, or Schindler’s List—but we’re not acculturated to it on television. (This may be why those exact movies are notorious for going unwatched at home, while you wait until you’re “in the mood” for Schindler’s List.) You only have to make a decision to see a movie in a theater once. But with TV, you have to decide to begin every episode, and then you have to decide, minute by minute, not to distract yourself with, say, Level 973 of Candy Crush Soda Saga, of which I desperately availed myself all series long, trying to create just enough emotional distance to keep watching.
On April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in the north end of Central Park. The crime was swiftly pinned on five boys—Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise—who lived in the neighborhood. Though they confessed to the police on video and were described in the tabloids as a “wolf pack” out “wilding” for the night, they were innocent. Coerced confessions were the only evidence against them, but racism made the boys convenient scapegoats and metaphors for all that had gone wrong in a stratified, corrupt, crime-ridden, rape-infested, and fearful New York City. When They See Us, which arrives on Netflix Friday, is not interested in the boys as symbols. DuVernay, who took on the project after Santana suggested it to her via tweet, wants to dramatize what the criminal justice system and New York City stole from these innocent teenagers.
The series begins on the day of the rape. Antron (Caleel Harris and, as an adult, Jovan Adepo), Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares), Kevin (Asante Blackk and Justin Cunningham) , Yusef (Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk), and Korey (Jharrel Jerome) are going about their regular lives: talking about the Yankees with a father and dreaming of becoming a shortstop; kissing a girlfriend; lugging an instrument around after school. Though they don’t know each other particularly well, they all wind up in a group of about 25 boys who head into the park that night, where some goof around, while others harass bikers or a homeless guy. The police descend, arresting a handful of them, but the cops don’t consider any of them suspects in anything particularly serious.
That changes after the rape victim is discovered in the early hours of the morning and Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman, whose recent extracurricular misbehavior only adds to the part) decides the boys’ presence in the park that night can’t be a coincidence. Despite there being no physical evidence that the boys were involved, the police set out to make the facts fit the theory of the case. They start trying to get confessions and names, which they use to pick up additional suspects. Korey Wise, whose name is not on the police’s list, goes down to the precinct with Yusef just to be a good friend. He won’t leave police custody for more than a decade. For his act of kindness he will spend years at Rikers Island awaiting trial and then 13 years in an adult prison, the only one of the five who was 16 and so sentenced as an adult.
The first episode is primarily concerned with chronicling the interrogations that resulted in the boys’ coerced confessions. It’s like watching a horrible trap being sprung in slow motion. The police questioning lasted more than 24 hours, in some cases without giving the boys food or access to their parents, and in all cases with enormous pressure from the police, who continuously promised that if the boys just said what they were instructed to say they would get to go home. The confessions barely make sense; the kids’ stories don’t align, some place the crime in incorrect places or at incorrect times. But the story was one that the police, the city, and many of the people in it wanted to believe, and so the confessions, however false, however swiftly denied, were enough.
The second episode focuses on the trial. Perhaps because the story is so grim—the boys arrive at court every day with people, including our current president, calling for their execution—the series makes the lawyers significantly more competent in fiction than they were in real life, which means there are some strong moments of cross-examination. Nonetheless, the boys are found guilty. The third episode follows the four boys who were convicted as juveniles into and then out of jail, where life remains extremely challenging and unjust, not just for them but for their families: Michael K. Williams, Niecy Nash, and John Leguizamo all play parents, part of the large cast upon whom the case has tentacular effects.
The fourth and final episode turns to Korey and his experience in adult prison, the series’ painful emotional climax. Having been convicted of an extremely high-profile sex crime, Korey is a target from the beginning. He begs for help, again and again, but no one will give it to him. He spends years in solitary confinement rather than be killed in general population. He keeps changing prisons in the hope he’ll be closer to his mother, and it continuously backfires. It’s heartbreaking how much succor he receives from the most basic kindnesses. (Less effective is the introduction, in flashback and memory, of his noble, loving transgender sister. Along with an extremely knowing extended conversation about Donald Trump, this lays the wokeness on anachronistically thick.)
The story ends with a swift examination of how the Central Park Five’s convictions were vacated: not because of further investigation by the press, lawyers, or the police, but because the actual rapist—who was arrested close to the time of the original crime, whose DNA matched that found at the crime scene, and who was only not considered because the police and DA’s office were so smugly sure they had the right kids—encounters Korey in jail and comes forward to confess. A horrifying rapist and murderer has more of an innate sense of justice, in this instance, than the justice system itself. Though the movie ends with a feel-good sequence—the five men, free, raise their arms in front of a cheering crowd—the series is effective enough at showing what was taken from them to temper this ending, if not make it downright risible (and yet tear-jerking).
When They See Us may be making an appeal to our duty to attend to this not-at all-ancient history—but is not, itself, dutiful. In one aspect, in particular, DuVernay’s approach is refreshingly unencumbered. Unlike, say, the various works about O.J. Simpson—OJ Simpson: Made in America and The People vs. O.J. Simpson—which explicated Los Angeles’ long racial history to help explain what happened, DuVernay is only passingly interested in the sociocultural moment, the New York City history that led to this catastrophe. In this specific instance, that’s actually a withering assessment of those very sociocultural forces: They were, simply, racist. There’s no reason to overcomplicate it.
For more context and complications about New York City and the case, you could read Joan Didion’s perceptive, hard-nosed essay or watch Ken Burns’ documentary (it suggests, for example, that large swaths of the black community thought the boys were guilty too, which is underplayed in DuVernay’s series). But their conclusions are similar, and there’s a power to DuVernay’s relative lack of interest in what made so many of the white people involved in this incident so abjectly horrible and wrong. Racism, straight up, made the city, its servants, and its citizens stupid, evil, and blind.