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‘When They See Us’ retraces story of Central Park Five


On April 19, 1989, five teenagers—four Black and one Latino—were arrested for a crime they insisted they did not commit. The new Netflix Original mini-series, “When They See Us” focuses on the so-called Central Park Five who were exonerated in 2002 because of the confession of Matias Reyes, the real perpetrator..

Written and directed by Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) and starring Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”) as prosecutor Linda Fairstein and Niecy Nash (“Scream Queens”) as Delores Wise, the mother of Korey Wise, one of the alleged suspects.

“When They See Us,” tells the story about injustice in law enforcement, as well as the race differences that played a role, and the aftermath those five boys had to live through.

The four-part mini series is heartbreaking, emotional and has been one of the most viewed shows since it aired on May 31.

The story takes place in New York City, during a time the city experienced a high crime rate. The rise of the crack-cocaine epidemic, the as well as the gap between rich and poor were the familiar backdrop.

On that evening, about 30 teenagers gathered together to (allegedly) do some “wilding” as they called it, which was slang for “hanging out.” But some decided to “wild out” instead, and assaulted random people in Central Park. At the same time, around 9 p.m., a jogger named Patrisha Meili was raped and severely assaulted in the Northern Woods of the park. But the incident was further away from where the teenagers were “wilding out.” The time gap made it impossible for Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise to have committed the crime. No DNA was found on the victim, no evidence was found to link the crime to the five teenagers at that time – yet they were arrested and tried in front of a jury.

DuVernay mentioned in an interview with Trevor Novah, that she wanted to highlight the police interrogations and treatment the boys received, which included intimidations, beatings, deprivation of food and water, as well as the use of the restrooms. She captured the emotional distress the five boys and their parents experienced, so well, viewers could feel their pain.

The individual performances of the young actors are  impeccable. Jharrel Jerome stood out for his  realistic display of shock and alarm in accompanying his friend, Salaam, to the police precinct, and later during interrogation and ultimately after being found guilty. Jerome’s emotional scene in jail, after learning that this transgender brother had died, is particularly noteworthy.

Part four of the mini series focuses on Wise alone in prison, who was a target of such regular assaults by inmates and guards that eventually he requested to be placed in solitary confinement. He was the only one of the five who got charged as an adult and who spent 12 years in different prisons across New York state.

And although Huffman was only in a few scenes, her portrayal of being a tough, ice cold prosecutor with a racist vein is chilling, imagining how Fairstein is likely to be in real life.

It took DuVernay four years to complete “When They See Us” in collaboration with the five exonerees, after Raymond Santana reached out to the filmmaker via Twitter in 2015.

“When They See Us,” stirred up quite some media attention since its debut, and the pain the five went through, including their parents, is back in the press. There has never been a criminal case so real as portrayed on screen like the story of the Central Park Five. At the end, justice was late–but eventually served.