When They See Us, the Netflix limited series directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay, is about the Central Park Five, the five kids, African American and Latino, who in 1989 were accused of assault and rape and sentenced to maximum terms based on nothing more than coerced false confessions, when they hadn’t been anywhere near the scene of crime. The series is about racism and about a legal system designed not to find the guilty but to fabricate them. It is about how a deeply broken system failed the five accused. In telling a story about the late ’80s and early ’90s, it is also very much about present-day America and about how the system is still just as corrupt in many ways. The law may be many things, but if you’re black, don’t expect it to be just.
In telling a story of utter victimisation and powerlessness, When They See Us nonetheless gives its protagonists agency. It doesn’t flinch or look away as the five young men – Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise – are ground up, by the police, the media, the courts, even by vile, toxic New York businessmen (and future POTUSes) spouting political invective, but they nevertheless are not the story’s objects, they have subjectivity. We see their world through their eyes. As written and performed they are rounded, believable human beings, both as their younger selves that are sentenced and as their older versions as they are released and attempt to build lives for themselves in a world that has turned its back on them, where they have to announce to every potential employer that they are convicted criminals and sex offenders. On every level, the system is stacked against them, and it is a system run by people who see these young men of colour as a pack of animals. It is difficult to watch these scenes and not feel anger that this has happened to the five and that little has changed since.
Like DuVernay’s Academy Award-nominated Selma, and like many recent films by and about African Americans, When They See Us is a striking, even confrontational experience – literally so. In terms of its cinematography, the series challenges what we see and how we see it, using techniques that have recently been used by the likes of Spike Lee, Jordan Peele and especially Barry Jenkins. They use close-ups and have their actors look straight at the camera – straight at us. I expect that the effect of this differs from one audience member to the other, but for me, a white, middle-aged, middle-class man living in Europe, this is a perspective I don’t often have, and I suspect it may be similarly striking to many white Americans: face to face with a person of colour. Even if we watch films, TV series and documentaries about the realities of living as an African American in modern America, we tend to be looking at characters in the third person, at them. When those characters look back at us, they are not just objects of our gaze, they are subjects. There is an intimacy to the perspective used in films like Get Out or Moonlight, and by DuVernay in When They See Us, that it can be almost unsettling to white audiences so used to seeing protagonists that look like themselves that it rarely registers any more. In When They See Us, the screen isn’t what we’re used to, namely a mirror where we see people like ourselves – yet it really does reflect us back onto ourselves.
DuVernay asks us not just to look at her protagonists, at the Central Park Five, but to see them and to feel that they are seeing us too. To consider what it is we are seeing. Is it a pack of feral youths looking for kicks, no matter at what cost, which is what the NYPD, the media, the juries saw? Or is it human beings who deserve better than the unjust system that, as DuVernay has said in interviews, may not just be broken but was built to be this way? How long do we need to look before we actually see? Who do we want the Central Park Five to see when they peer out at us?