When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s fictionalized Netflix miniseries about the Central Park Five, is the latest in a spate of true crime stories America keeps revisiting in an effort to learn the right lessons. It’s an ongoing project, one that has shifted as our modes of reporting and storytelling have changed, and as the range of voices doing the retelling has diversified. In a moment characterized by both unprecedented progress and defensive backlash, the stakes of these correctives are enormous. DuVernay’s extraordinary miniseries illustrates both the importance and the limitations of seeking anything like a “definitive” version of these events; the Central Park Five case has been and will probably always be a messier story than the parables it became.
DuVernay’s series is far from the first effort to revisit the Central Park Five, a now-legendary miscarriage of justice that sacrificed the freedom of five boys to a city’s panicked demand for answers. When They See Us comes years after Sarah Burns’ extremely thorough book on the case in 2011 and her 2012 PBS documentary (with Ken Burns and David McMahon). Whereas DuVernay centers the boys and the aftermath of their conviction, Burns’ efforts were extraordinary deep dives into the details of the case and the historical context that blinded those responsible to their glaring mistakes. Rewind to 1989, when these events unfolded, and the list of those who got it wrong is long: the media, the jury, the NYPD, the attorney general’s office, prosecutors Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, and Donald Trump, among others. Most of the subsequent treatments—When They See Us foremost among them—offer stark reminders of just how wrong, and how powerful, the story was that took hold at that time. The boys were treated as guilty of rape, and coerced into confessions, despite a lack of physical evidence and having been in a different part of the park. They were young, black, and may have participated in separate unruly and violent behavior that night, but the victim everyone fixated on was a white female investment banker. The real rapist, Matias Reyes, would confess to the rape in 2002 and match the DNA of the semen found on the victim. Despite its best efforts, the attorney general’s office was unable to establish any connection between Reyes and the Central Park Five.
DuVernay’s miniseries scripts Reyes’ confession as a long-awaited epiphany, a moment of grace in a narrative ground down by the gears of a punitive and indifferent justice system. The relief Reyes’ confession offers is more than earned. Centering the five men as fully realized and separate individuals, for once, instead of fussing over the symbolic weight they were made to collectively bear, makes this particular version of relief possible.
But it’s equally clear that no retelling, however authoritative (like Burns’) or empathetic (like DuVernay’s), will dislodge the narrative those responsible for the wrongful conviction cling to. Some stories are entrenched. Last week, the original prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, excoriated DuVernay in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, insisting on the propriety of her actions, the criminality of the men, and the “defamatory” character of her portrayal on the miniseries. Eric Reynolds, a black detective who was among the first to apprehend a few of the boys, told the New York Daily News in 2018 he believed they were guilty and worked in concert with Reyes. He speculated that the settlement was “political payback” from Bill de Blasio to Al Sharpton and believes he wasn’t named as a defendant in the lawsuit settled between the five and the city because his inclusion would conflict with a narrative about white police officers mistreating black defendants. He stands by that assessment now. Trump—who advocated for the five to get the death penalty—reiterated his belief in the men’s guilt as recently as 2016, calling it “outrageous” that the case was settled “with so much evidence against them.” When April Ryan gave him an opportunity to apologize for his involvement on Tuesday, he said the boys “admitted their guilt” and that “if you look at some of the prosecutors, they think that the city should never have settled that case. So we’ll leave it at that.”
It would be great if DuVernay’s were the final words on this case—as she said in closing last week’s Oprah Winfrey interview with the Central Park Five, she expressed a hope that they could finally stop telling this story. It would be ideal if this cycle of retellings somehow brought us to a level of objectivity not only about this case but about systemic racism and criminal injustice. But we know that’s not going to happen: There is going to be another Central Park Five, another police shooting, another wrongful conviction built on a theory of the case that wouldn’t bear scrutiny (if scrutiny were responsibly applied). And the fact that powerful people are still defending that long-ago mistake shows, in an increasingly chilling present tense, how far we still have to go.
If DuVernay’s approach to these events in When They See Us proves anything, it’s that extracting actionable lessons from a miscarriage of justice, in hindsight, is harder than it should be. You feel the injustice, and wish to right it, but … how? The recent explosion in history podcasts, documentaries, and dramas has taught us that no scandal or crime or movement ever turned out to be quite what people thought. Sometimes (as in The People v. O.J. Simpson) supplying context reshapes the viewer’s perspective without necessarily upending the basic facts. Sometimes (as in Leaving Neverland, which revisited Michael Jackson’s alleged abuse of children, or Lorena, which reviewed the Bobbitt case) the retelling totally recasts the prevailing consensus.
Many of these efforts have exposed how unreliable the stories of these cases were at the time in the public and in the courts. But far from offering clarity or relief, this has trapped those of us still caught up in the fantasy of definitive truth seeking in a kind of anxious loop, knowing that our own present moment is not exempt from blind spots and biases. It can be disorienting. And one reason the Central Park Five might be taking America by storm is that we are trying to figure out what the Central Park jogger case means for America now—given the state of criminal justice reform, of institutional, and of presidential racism—even as we are interested in reevaluating what it meant then.
And if the idea is, as DuVernay said in the Oprah interview, to “start a conversation” in hopes of stopping something like the Central Park Five from happening again, the most important moment of the Central Park jogger case, the point when the most importantly different choices could have been made, was also the point when confusion and outrage were at all-time highs, when the pressure was highest, when misreadings were encouraged and likely.
To that end, one of the most useful articles in the two-decade-long ordeal was a New York Times editorial from that first week after the attack, before the boys were fully villainized and before the narrative about them and what they meant had hardened.
That media coverage of the Central Park Five was a potpourri of racist sensationalism is pretty much settled fact. But what’s striking about that editorial, published on April 26, 1989, isn’t just how mightily it struggles, and fails, to explain the Central Park jogger case in real time, but how earnestly it strains to reconcile the ugly overtones of its headline—“The Jogger and the Wolf Pack”—with some of the less cooperative facts of the case. Later coverage would leave little room for doubt as to the kids’ guilt, but this early piece registers some hesitation as it tackles a set of unrelated incidents that took place the week before, on the evening of April 19, 1989—the rape, and a group of young men who variously robbed and assaulted parkgoers elsewhere—that got rolled together in ways it would take decades to untangle.
How could something like this happen? The Times editorial board wonders in different ways throughout the column. The theories it cycles through in search of a solution are instructive: The answer for the “rampage” couldn’t be drugs (the boys were clean). It wasn’t greed: “The wolf pack stole nothing more than a sandwich,” the piece notes. Because three of the victims were black or Hispanic, race was ruled out as a motive, and so was poverty: Several of the suspects came from “stable, financially secure families.” There was no structural theory of the case, in other words; nothing yet that would point the way to preventing it from happening again. But rather than question the premise—perhaps there wasn’t a single theory—the public, the press, the police quickly embraced a neologism of unknown origin that soon dominated headlines: wilding. The word, supercharged with explanatory promise, captured an emerging public horror of what seemed like a new and limitless form of teen sociopathy.
Now that there was a label to explain it all, the obvious next step (in hindsight) was the demonization and imprisonment of Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam—the group of kids, three of whom barely knew each other, that would be forever bound together in the public imagination first as a “wolf pack” and then as the Central Park Five. “What caused such savagery?” The New York Times mused in its editorial. “How could so many teen-agers lose all sense of morality, even of compassion? The public lunges for explanations.” Lunge the public did, and the conclusions investigators jumped to cost the five boys not just their youth but their lives as they knew them. “My life is ruined,” McCray told Oprah, holding back tears. It also cost a number of other women who were subsequently attacked or killed by the real rapist, Matias Reyes, who later told investigators he’d even seen a police officer he knew as he walked out of the park filthy and wearing the victim’s radio headset—and remained at large while the boys were locked up.
Nothing could be easier than condemning the factors that led to the convictions of the Central Park Five. But completing DuVernay’s stated goal—extrapolating lessons or reforms that would stop something like this from happening again—is harder. To the extent that the Central Park Five case intersects with contemporary concerns like the #MeToo movement, race and mass incarceration, prosecutorial power, or Donald Trump’s acrid influence on American public life, the main lesson seems to be how the very thing that should warn us about complicated situations—messiness, uncertainty—is what draws us even more hungrily toward easy and hasty explanations. Even those defending the Central Park Five back then could be wrong: Some protesters called the victim a whore or suggested her boyfriend had raped her. On the victim’s side, there were activists protesting violence against women who helped to railroad the five boys.
We live in a time saturated by event politics, where the temptation is to overread every single thing that happens as symbolic of trend X or dispositive of trend Y. These impulses are understandable, but they’re also fast-twitch responses in a landscape that rewards that. I’m highlighting that 1989 New York Times editorial with the racist headline both because it demonstrates the danger of that, and because it reminds us that hindsight all too easily condescends. That piece was struggling to make sense of a set of alarming facts that didn’t add up to guilt but didn’t add up to innocence either. It didn’t really add up to anything. But it had to. People wanted a verdict.
A survey of this wave of historical reappraisals shows a not-especially-surprising emphasis on learning history by studying crime—crime as it was construed then, the consensus that formed around it, and crime as it looks through today’s supposedly enlightened lens. Each takes up the question of how American infamy functioned as an unexamined countersink to the easy legend of American virtue. And while it’s clear that the public then needed those contrasts to keep the good vs. evil story going, the trickier problem is figuring out what narratives those needs are producing right now. The Central Park Five are a heartbreaking demonstration of the ruthlessness with which, then as now, Americans favor simplifying theories over the messy complexity of people and society, and the extent to which the outrage of the moment can cause us all to lunge toward a mistake that takes years to figure out.