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When They See Us is a Political Act that Shows us the Dark Soul of America

I tried to imagine someone watching When They See Us who didn’t know the history—some poor soul who might have held out hope until the end of Episode 2 that these boys might be acquitted as they should have been—but I couldn’t do it.

I knew the story going in, and if you didn’t, well, I’m sorry to inform you that this is America. And this is a tragedy.

If you didn’t know this story before, Ken Burns’ documentary on the Central Park Five told it masterfully several years ago. But whereas Burns, in his typical style, laid out the facts of the case (which are heartbreaking enough), Ava DuVernay’s new show feels them at you.

I don’t mean this as a criticism, although maybe it is.

Take, for example, the opening scene: what we see in When They See Us is a bunch of boys gathering and heading into Central Park for no clear reason. They are just being boys, and getting caught up in some nebulous excitement.

And that feels right in terms of what actually happened. No real explanation seems available. But this fictional treatment perhaps goes too far with that. When it comes to Korey (Jharrel Jerome) ditching his girl at Kennedy Chicken, e.g., I found myself wondering why he would do that. Perhaps he doesn’t know why either—I certainly can’t explain everything I did when I was 16—but the way this is played still didn’t feel quite right to me; maybe because it happened before we even really got introduced to who these kids are.

This gets to a potential problem with the show in general: it is perhaps too on the nose.

As we watch the police brutalize these kids and force them to confess to a crime they didn’t commit, I found myself time and again feeling like it was just on the edge of becoming a caricature.

The thing is, it isn’t, really. As much as I want to believe that this isn’t how people are treated by our justice system; they are. And as much as this portrayal of what happened to the Central Park Five might seem over the top at times: this is basically what happened. And I know this. The show is not engaging in exaggeration; the myopia of the police—clearly informed by systemic racism—was indeed this absurd.

I don’t know if these words were said, or if we’re getting an accurate depiction of what was going on in the minds of the prosecutors and police involved, but the basic story is on the money, and it tells us something about who we are as a country.

So it’s a weird criticism that I suggested above—that somehow this portrayal of the events that I know to be truly pretty accurate seems almost outlandish. The reality here seems almost too absurd for the “realism” of TV. But I think that’s the point. It’s not that truth is stranger than fiction, as they say, but that our actual reality is more fucked up than the depictions of it in TV and film would generally allow us to believe.

The Central Park Five in custody in Netflix's When They See Us

No Justice, No Peace

It is easy to focus on race when it comes to the case of the Central Park Five, and we should. The way the police locked in on them without reflection is a clear indication of the systemic racism in our society. They labeled them as “animals” and put forth this weird term about them “wilding” in ways that cast not just the kids who got put on trial as thugs, but implied that there were roving bands of black youths out there just looking to fuck shit up and maybe rape you.

The way that DuVernay edits in actual news footage from the time is striking. A terrible crime has occurred, and people want justice for it, which is all too understandable. But then we got all of this rhetoric about the black youth and how they were “wilding” thugs forming “wolf packs” intent only on savaging the unsuspecting. The very characterization of human beings as “animals” is deeply troubling. Certain humans are cast as less than human, and well…once we do that all bets are off.

I think it was smart to only use news footage of Donald Trump at the time, but if you didn’t know that he was calling for all of these boys to be put to death, I’m glad you do now. And, for the record, he continued to claim they were guilty even after they had been exonerated…because he is a racist.

It baffles me that there can be any “debate” about that point given merely his actions and language with regard to the Central Park Five, and of course there are numerous other things Trump has done and said that simply make his racism clear.

Perhaps the problem is a tendency to think of racism in overly individualistic terms, as if it has to do solely with what is in someone’s heart, or soul. Rather, it is the systemic structures of racism in America that When They See Us puts on full display. Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga), Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman), and others are more cogs in the machine than individual malicious actors. They, along with the other police involved in the case, may not be self-consciously racist, but the very move to think of the boys in the park as “animals”—to zero in on them as suspects in a brutal rape solely because they were in the park causing some ruckus—indicates a structure of racism working behind their backs. Even if they truly thought they were pursuing the perpetrators of a vicious crime in good faith, they weren’t—and that’s the problem.

People protest in Netflix's When They See Us

It is a problem that we continue to see with regard to the deaths of young black men at the hands of the police, or what allowed George Zimmerman to get away with killing Trayvon Martin. It is why “All Lives Matter” is such an offensive response to “Black Lives Matter”—the very point of the latter is that we live in a society that acts like they don’t.

Maybe we need other terms to approach the systemic nature of racism, as it seems like the point is so often misunderstood, but I don’t know what they might be, and at least a part of that misunderstanding seems to be willful.

People take great offense at being called racist, and perhaps they should, but the point should be to examine how one is being influenced in what may be an unconscious way. You’re not off the hook just because you’re determined by these systemic structures. Perhaps you were convinced that the Central Park Five did it and never once thought “I hate black people” explicitly in your brain, but you’re still racist because of how you let that structure determine you. Donald Trump is a racist at least in these terms, as is Linda Fairstein, along with any number of the cops and prison guards depicted in When They See Us—even some of the black ones.

To be caught up in the structures of systemic racism isn’t an excuse. It’s complicity. And that’s the point: work to help fix the problem, or you are a part of it. If calling people racist isn’t helpful, it’s because it elicits a knee-jerk resistance. Thus the goal of When They See Us to dramatize systemic racism is a laudable one. Presuming it lands and we all recognize the injustice inflicted on these boys, what we should ultimately see is ourselves, our society, and the taint upon it of a systemically racist “justice” system.

The Criminal as Delinquent

Michel Foucault outlined this in Discipline and Punish: we have moved increasingly from treating the criminal as a person who has broken the law to judging his character—he is a bad person, in other words, to be labeled as such with some kind of societal scarlet letter, as opposed to a person who happened to do a bad thing.

We see this at play almost immediately in When They See Us, as the cops move seamlessly from the fact that at least some of the boys in the park (probably not those they ultimately hung charges on) did some violent things to the inference that they raped Trisha Meili. They were out there “wilding”—this group of “thugs”—so how could they not have been the ones responsible?

This isn’t just about race; it is about how we deal with criminals overall. As Antron, Raymond, Yusef, and Kevin get released, we’re forced to see them struggle in the world they’ve been thrown into. They have to register as sex offenders, and find it hard to get jobs, amongst other things. Because they were released without being exonerated. To get parole, one has to admit to the crime. And so they re-enter a world where strangers and stepmoms think they were guilty, and have to bear that stigma.

Yusef (Chris Chalk) tells his barber that he wants to be a teacher, only to be informed that he won’t be able to because of his record. Raymond (Freddy Miyares) is told that he can’t leave the (tumultuous) home he has returned to at night, even to go on the stoop. And while that’s only for as long as he is on parole, the effects of being a convicted felon and registered sex offender are forever.

Forget about the fact that they were innocent for a second. Even if they were guilty, is this fair? Is this just? Should one’s whole life be ruined forever because of one bad action? Do we believe in redemption, or not?

Because we have a system where ex-cons struggle to find employment, can’t talk to one another, and sex offenders have to go on a registry that sticks with them for the rest of their lives. It is presumed that because they did something once, there will always be the threat that they’ll do it again. Which may be true, but such a system itself cuts off possibilities for reform.

The young Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez) cries at trial in Netflix's When They See Us

This came across most strongly through Raymond’s story in When They See Us. He is kept from having a life by these rules imposed by him, and I don’t know if it was intended or not, but as I watched this fictional portrayal I found myself rooting for him to break the rules and turn to crime. It felt like that was the only way at that point for him to rage against the machine that was keeping him penned in, and it wasn’t clear that the life he would have otherwise was meaningfully better than being in prison.

The ways in which our system keeps ex-cons from being able to reintegrate—from the box on the employment form to sex offender registries to being deprived of the right to vote—all work to keep them perpetually Other: once a criminal, always a delinquent.

A lot of people like to talk about the U.S. being a Christian nation, but I’ve read the Bible, and Jesus seems pretty big on forgiveness. By that metric, we’re far from it. Instead we label the wrong-doer as forever tainted, without the possibility of legal redemption. No wonder recidivism rates are so high.

There is No Justice

The third episode of When They See Us tracks Antron, Raymond, Yusef, and Kevin to great effect. The transitions to their older selves were in each case well done, and the explorations of their lives after being released equally so.

These four got out because their time was up, or they got parole; they re-entered the world not as exonerated men, but as ex-cons who were widely hated. People thought they were guilty, and they had to admit to being such to get out.

This is the structure of the Justice System, and the way parole works: you have to admit guilt. Beyond that, there are any number of defendants who plead guilty because their attorneys pressure them to do so. You have a right to one, even if you can’t afford it (which is a super good thing), but that doesn’t mean they won’t be underpaid and overworked.

So often, people take a plea not because they’re guilty, but because it seems like the best way out.

Korey Wise deserves some credit for not doing so, and his story is the most heartbreaking of all. He wouldn’t give in, or admit guilt in order to obtain parole, even though he was the only one of the Five to be sentenced as an adult.

Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome) poses for his mug shot in Netflix's When They See Us

It thus makes sense that DuVernay would more or less give him his own episode to close the series. Little time is spent showing what it was like for the others inside, but with Korey we get an exploration of the vagaries of prison, from corrupt guards to being attacked by fellow inmates and solitary confinement.

The show’s treatment of solitary may leave something to be desired, however. While we see Korey hallucinating and suffering, for example, When They See Us doesn’t really get to what has led solitary to be labeled by some as a “living death” or why the ACLU contends that it is cruel and unusual punishment.

Nonetheless, the episode puts a point on the difficulties of just trying to put one’s head down and serve one’s time, and how the prison system itself is riddled with bias and other problems. These issues have probably been better explored in other shows, to be honest, such as Oz or even Orange is the New Black, but it is important that this is here in When They See Us.

Again, the Central Park Five were innocent, and the show makes no bones about that from the beginning, but it is important to think about how unjust these things are even when it comes to the guilty. Prison guards are supposed to be there to maintain order and protect you, not throw you to the wolves if you can’t do anything for them, or bang your head against the wall for shits and giggles.

The dehumanization present in this case from the beginning becomes even more extreme in this context, and we see how it is not only society at large, but the prison system in particular, that moves to view young men of color as animals, thugs, and delinquents. (Which is not to imply that white prisoners are treated well, by any means.)

What is the goal of punishment? Conceptually speaking, there are two main strands of thought. On the one hand, there are those who contend that the goal should be rehabilitation. On the other, there are those who conceive of it as a matter of retribution: paying the crime back upon the offender. Both of these make sense, potentially, and aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, if we think, for example, about punishment as “teaching someone a lesson.” If it is a lesson, we want them to learn it and get better, so the question is whether “an eye for an eye” does that or if we should go some other way. Studies have shown, for example, that allowing inmates to take college courses lowers recidivism. And one way or another, shouldn’t that be a goal we can all agree on?

Instead, our system seems to be largely a matter of warehousing offenders for however many years and then releasing them not only without assistance in reintegrating into society but with forces in play that work against them doing so. It seems based not on rehabilitation, or even retributivism, but much more upon schadenfreude—the joy taken in the suffering of an other.

We want to see the bad man suffer, and move to label all criminals as such: animals or delinquents. This goes even more so when it comes to young men of color like the Central Park Five, but perhaps Nietzsche was right and schadenfreude lays at the root of the whole idea of punishment in general. It’s not about making the world better, but the joy taken in pushing a rapist’s head against the wall.

That’s not a moral sentiment, or an enlightened one, of course, but perhaps we remain human, all too human, and as much as we might like to think we have advanced beyond savagery, we have only refined it into subtler forms.

The Central Park Five were ultimately exonerated after the real perpetrator confessed. That this happened seems like luck. They were paid millions of dollars in restitution by New York, but we have to ask whether that rectifies the wrong done to them. And I would contend that it does not, and could not.

No amount of money could make up for the harm done to a teenage boy coerced into a confession that led to a lengthy period of incarceration and cut off the chance at a normal life. DuVernay ends on a hopeful tone, showing the faces of the actual men and telling us what they are doing with their lives now. And insofar as they are even alive and making it in the world, we should rejoice. Insofar as they are working to make the world better, we should rejoice. Insofar as they were finally exonerated, we should rejoice.

But it doesn’t make things right or address the systemic problems that led to their conviction in the first place. Those things linger. And there are those who refuse to believe their innocence even in light of everything because of them. And one of them is in the White House.

When They See Us is a Political Act

It is in this sense that When They See Us is a political act. It aims to portray not just what happened to the Central Park Five, but the systemic structures of racism and injustice in our society. And it just so happens that those are veritably embodied in the current President of the United States, who inserted himself into this very case 30 years ago to call for the reinstatement of the death penalty for these boys and has continued to exemplify the kind of casual and unreflective bigotry that eats at the soul of America.

Rather than bombard us with facts and statistics, DuVernay uses the Central Park Five as a concrete universal. The title of the show may refer to how those in power see young men of color—as “animals” or “thugs”—but it alternately could be taken to refer to the U.S. itself. When they see us for who we truly are—the future people who are hopefully more enlightened, or maybe space aliens looking down on our species—they’ll see how ugly we are in our hearts: maybe not me, or you, but the us we cannot escape.

It’s not about taking a distance and judging others; it is about looking at ourselves and who we are as a society, and hopefully doing something about it. Because as much as we might like to look at this case as some outlier that happened 30 years ago, as much as we might like to think that we have gotten better, the truth is that we haven’t.

Donald Trump claims the Central Park Five were guilty in 2016

This is all just as possible today as it was in 1989, and that fact that these five men were ultimately exonerated rests not on the strength of our judicial system, but on the conscience of Matias Reyes, who decided to own up to his crime.

We haven’t gotten better; arguably we have gotten worse. And DuVernay’s work asks us not only to ask what we see when we look at young men of color like them (the Central Park Five), but what we see when we look at ourselves as a nation.

No justice, no peace.


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Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain studies philosophy and is a writer and head of the TV department at 25YL. He is also one half of Drink Full and Descend, a podcast that started in relation to Twin Peaks, but has now moved beyond it, and has begun to explore Surrealism. He lives in Brooklyn and has a cat.

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  1. After reading (among others) Lisa Pease’s “A Lie too Big to Fail” and your article, I thought, American justice is not about justice, but about winning. And winning a case doesn’t necessarily mean getting to the truth.

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