DUBAI: “When They See Us” is the story of five young lives wrecked by abuse of power, institutional racism and the fragility of truth in the face of the juggernaut that is the criminal justice system.
Director Ava DuVernay has done a remarkable job with this miniseries, a dramatization of the now infamous case of Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana — who came to be known, collectively, as the Central Park Five.
One night in 1989, the five young teens, separately or in pairs, joined a crowd of other boys from Harlem rushing into the park — apparently without any specific goal — and through a series of events that, if this was fiction, would be dismissed as too far-fetched, came to be arrested, convicted and sentenced for the rape and vicious beating of Trisha Melli, a young white woman who was out jogging that night and whose body was found in the early hours of the following morning.
All the signs at the crime scene point to the attack being the work of a single assailant, but — swayed by news of several assaults carried out by a small minority of the black teenagers in the park, and of the arrest of “a bunch of turds” in another area of the park, the head of the District Attorney’s sex crimes unit, Linda Fairstein, concocts her own narrative — one in which the teenagers are characterized as “animals,” prowling in “a pack,” seeking destruction and violence.
The mostly white authorities are not portrayed as blatant, outspoken racists. Rather their prejudice is just there — a part of their lives and the lives of those around them. It is terrifying how quickly they all accept this flimsy concoction of an explanation, and even more terrifying how they cajole the vulnerable teenagers into backing it up, through a mixture of intimidation, actual violence, cajoling and outright lies during the boys’ unattended, unrecorded interviews.
The performances of the five actors playing the teens are all magnificent, conveying the disorientation, innocence, fear and vulnerability of these young victims with heartbreaking credibility.
The four episodes follow the story through to the men’s exoneration in 2002 — when the actual rapist, without coercion, confessed. By that point, of course, their childhoods have been lost and, even after serving their time, their lives ruined, as the third episode shows.
This is a masterful piece of television, albeit one that incites anger and disbelief much of the time. And sadly, it’s a story that isn’t too hard to imagine happening today.