Director Ava DuVernay’s four-episode dramatic series When They See Us becomes available to stream on Netflix on Friday, May 31st, 30 years and six weeks after jogger Trisha Meili was brutally assaulted in Central Park, her life forever changed. While many of us are familiar with the historic case that came to embody the state of race, class, and justice in America — its themes are as damning as ever, three decades later — DuVernay’s series aims to remind us that it’s also thirty years after the lives of five black and brown teenagers — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise — were thrown from their courses, all of them convicted and imprisoned for serious crimes that they did not commit.
Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon’s 2012 heartrending documentary The Central Park Five covers the case itself — go out of your way to watch that project, too, if you haven’t yet — and was what had initially captured DuVernay’s interest in the story. DuVernay, who directs and co-writes When They See Us, recently explained to Vanity Fair that she began following the Central Park Five Twitter account after seeing the documentary; after that, one thing led to another and the group of exonerees asked her if she would channel the stories of their lives into a project. “Their story wasn’t told when they were boys,” said Duvernay. “It was told for them and it was twisted and it was lies. There was so much more to it.”
Teenaged boys were transformed into menacing black and brown men-turned-animals by the media, accepted as criminals in the court of public opinion, and were convicted as such in a court of law despite inconsistencies in their confessions, an absence of eyewitnesses, and zero DNA evidence linking them to the assault and rape of Meili. A confession in 2002 from the real perpetrator Matias Reyes, plus the opportunity to use DNA testing to positively link Reyes to the crime, was what eventually led to the exoneration of the Central Park Five, after each had served between six and 13 years behind bars, with Wise serving the longest sentence under the harshest circumstances. In 2014, the men reached a settlement with New York City over their wrongful imprisonment, but were clear to express that it was but a small moment of vindication for them. “There’s no amount of money on Earth that will restore our youth,” said Richardson at a press conference following the settlement. “We lost those years.” All of the men have since become vocal advocates for justice reform, working closely with organizations like the Innocence Project to ensure that we move toward a moral and just system that isn’t built at the expense of innocent lives.
A Crash Course in Wrongful Convictions
Each young man involved in the Central Park Jogger case has claimed to have been coerced into confessing to the myriad crimes leveled against him. There confessions were given despite their innocence, and were accepted by the court despite the absence of quantitative, incriminating evidence suggesting any guilt. Since the Central Park Five were mere teenagers at the time, all between the ages of 14 and 16 years old, a guardian also had to sign their confession statements. Actor John Leguizamo, who plays Raymond Santana’s father in the series, had the opportunity to ask the real-life father of Raymond why he would do such a thing, even though he believed his son was telling the truth. Leguizamo shared his response with Vanity Fair. “[He] said, ‘Because they were innocent.’ They believed that because they were innocent, that somehow the power of innocence clears you or some kind of mighty justice was going to be on your side and everyone will see the truth. But, obviously, that’s not the way life really works.”
It’s an outcome that occurs more often than you might expect. According to figures cited by Al Jazeera, more than 1 in 10 of the wrongful convictions that have been overturned over the past few decades involved a false confession. Other figures suggest that something like 1 in 4 DNA exonerees have falsely confessed to the criminal charges that landed them in prison. Race is also a factor, of course. A separate report from 2017 found that black suspects are wrongfully convicted of sexual assault at a rate between three and four times higher than white suspects. The Equal Justice Institute cited unconscious bias, institutional discrimination, and blatant racism as reasons for the disparity in justice.
This false promise of justice in America will be a major theme of When They See Us. It’s a lot to take in, but hearing the stories of the wrongfully incarcerated is one small concession that we as the public can make toward not just McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise, but also toward the countless other lives who have been stripped of their power and dignity by our broken criminal justice system.
A Call to Action Through Drama
When the five men asked DuVernay to be the one to tell their story, she was in the midst of working on what would eventually become her Academy Award-nominated Netflix documentary 13th that covers the way that this country has substantively kept black Americans in chains well beyond the passage of the 13th amendment. DuVernay decided to take on another big project anyway, feeling it was her only option. “It wasn’t a very healthy thing to do, but they asked me to do it, and I wanted to tell their story,” she told Vanity Fair, referring to how deeply traumatic the experience had been for her and her cast and crew, who spent so much time absorbing the tale of moral injustice, talking with the innocent men who lost years of their precious young lives in prison; it was so traumatic that DuVernay made sure a crisis counselor was available to her team while they were on the job.
DuVernay wants you to feel this trauma too, which is one reason why she approached When They See Us as a four-part dramatic series rather than as another documentary, a decision that will appeal to our sense of pathos as she broaches issues of justice reform alongside the exonerees’ personal narratives in the project. DuVernay told NBC, “I hope that you will look at these men and say they were wronged, they’re innocent, and let them represent a large part of the incarcerated population who are behind bars for similar scenarios, scenarios where they’ve been profiled, where they’ve taken plea deals, where they’ve not been able to even be found guilty in a court of law.” It’s a tactic that she has used to great effect in previous films.
In speaking about 13th, DuVernay told NPR that she finds great value in art’s ability to interpret history into something that moves an audience. “I think a lot of the time we talk about these things in a very unemotional, clinical way, you know, where it feels like study.” Alluding to the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Lin Manuel-Miranda, she continued, “And I think what some of this new work is done has kind of peeled back that layer of kind of this is mandatory and this might feel like medicine and made it kind of go down a little more comfortably for some people. The good thing is that I think they’re all still saying something. And the great thing is, I think, that this artwork allows people to investigate the academic renderings of these ideas more fully with a good base of knowledge.”
With that directorial approach in mind, DuVernay’s series When They See Us aims to bring justice reform to the forefront of public discourse through engaging and empathetic storytelling. Upon receiving the Freedom and Justice Award this week at the Innocence Project’s Celebration of Freedom and Justice gala — the award was presented DuVernay by her five subjects — she told the crowd, “The film we’ve made is a love letter to the marginalized, the criminalized, those set aside and forgotten, those dissed and dismissed… Everyone in this room is an artist because like art, justice requires imagination. It requires us to imagine a world that isn’t there and to make it so.”