When they woke up on April 19, 1989, five teenage boys in Harlem had no idea their lives were about to be forever changed. Yusef Salaam, 15, was a skateboarder who enjoyed hanging out with his 16-year-old friend Korey Wise; 14-year-old Raymond Santana loved listening to hip hop; 15-year-old Antron McCray was a talented baseball player; 14-year-old Kevin Richardson played the trumpet and dreamed of attending Syracuse University.
That fateful night, these boys—the “Central Park Five,” as they came to be known—were in Central Park around the time 28-year-old banker Trisha Meili was raped and nearly beaten to death while jogging. The “Central Park jogger” case became national news, and the trial and conviction of “the five” has become another disturbing episode in America’s long history of racial strife and injustice. Salaam, Santana, McCray, Richardson, and Wise spent between five and 12 years in prison before their convictions were vacated after Matias Reyes confessed to raping Meili and a conclusive DNA match proved he was the sole rapist.
Pain of Imperfect Justice
Each of the four episodes in the series—which has been the most-watched series on Netflix every day since it premiered on May 31—covers a specific aspect of the story. Episode one focuses on the events of April 19, 1989, the harrowing interrogations of the boys, and the attempts by prosecutors Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) and Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) to build a case on scant evidence. Episode two is essentially a courtroom drama, depicting the highly publicized trials that led to the five boys’ convictions. Episode three follows the four youngest boys as they go to prison and then, five to six years later, return and struggle to adjust to civilian life as young men (now played by older actors). Episode four focuses on the especially tragic story of Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), who spent the most time in prison (12 years), where he suffered horrific abuse and long stretches in solitary confinement.
The show is bleak, with four-plus hours of tragedy and injustice finding a measure of reprieve only in the final 20 minutes of the final episode, which depicts Reyes’s confession and the subsequent exoneration of Salaam, Santana, McCray, Richardson, and Wise. By the time we reach the film’s epilogue, in which we see the real faces of the exonerated five and find out what they are doing today, as Frank Ocean’s version of “Moon River” plays, it’s hard not to be emotionally moved.
There are many layers to the pain in When They See Us. There is the pain of these five particular lives: their childhoods abruptly ended by an egregious miscarriage of justice; their lives forever marked by the traumas of prison at such a young age. Then there is the pain of knowing this is just one of many horror stories of the wrongfully imprisoned. It’s the pain of acknowledging our justice system has not been neutral or evenly balanced, but rather more prone to make mistakes when the accused look like the boys in the film. It’s the pain of knowing that perfect justice is elusive in this life but imperfect justice, and outright injustice, is easy to find.
Indeed, easier than ever before. The speed of information today feeds us constant headlines of injustice, from places we’ve never been and about issues we didn’t know were issues. The access to a surplus of narratives about suffering, injustice, racism, and hate on one hand awakens our conscience in helpful ways. On the other hand it can numb us and provide an imbalanced picture of the world that renders us constantly angry about a glut of problems but impotent to do much about them apart from becoming more aware and “woke.”
Access to a surplus of narratives about suffering, injustice, racism, and hate on one hand awakens our conscience in helpful ways. On the other hand it can numb us and provide an imbalanced picture of the world.
When They See Us strives to cut through the clutter of today’s anger overload, putting an intimate spotlight on five image-of-God-bearing young men whose lives have been abstracted and dehumanized under the “Central Park Five” moniker. The title hints at this human focus: dignifying specific individuals undergoing specific traumas at a specific point in time. But their story is also situated within a broader history and context that is emotionally charged and layered for black Americans, in ways white audiences can’t fully understand. The “see us” of the title is an invitation to better understand—an invitation I hope white evangelical audiences, among others, will accept.
Political Proxy War
In Ken Burns’s documentary The Central Park Five (2012), an essential companion piece to DuVernay’s series, The New York Times journalist Jim Dwyer comments on the Central Park Five case: “This was a proxy war being fought, and these young men were proxies for all kinds of other agendas. And the truth and reality and justice were not part of it.”
As much as that was true at the time—and Burns’s film does a great job describing the historical context of crime-ridden, fear-struck, racially divided 1980s New York City—it remains true 30 years later, and doubtless some will see When They See Us as another volley in the proxy war. In part this is simply because of the state of our discourse today, where everything—professional sports, fast-food chicken, wedding cakes, and so forth—is turned into proxies for larger cultural and political battles. But it’s also because in this particular narrative, the face and flashpoint of our current political divisions, Donald Trump, figures prominently.
The series could not have avoided Trump and should not be blamed for including footage of him. In 1989, Trump was outspoken in print and television media regarding the Central Park jogger case (in comments that have not aged well). Still, one fears that the important truth-telling in the series—as with so much truth-telling these days—will get dismissed on account of a perceived political framing. As we know all too well today, facts are quickly ignored (on all sides) when even a whiff of political leaning can be detected.
Dehumanized Victims. Dehumanized Villains.
One aspect of the series that might diminish its potency with some viewers is its exaggerated portrait of Linda Fairstein as corrupt arch-villain and other prosecutors and detectives as one-dimensionally merciless and malicious.
These villainous depictions make for a better drama, but a less trustworthy narrative. Any time a bad guy is portrayed without any shred of empathy, we should be skeptical. Were Fairstein and the police really this racist, manipulative, and truth-suppressing in their approach to this case? Perhaps. But the extremity of the depiction leaves When They See Us open to this critique. In some ways it would have been more unsettling and convicting to white viewers if they could see themselves in Linda Fairstein; but as it is they might claim a distance from her because of how extreme and evil she is portrayed. It’s important for us to remember that one doesn’t have to be a villain to do wrong things, nor a saint to do good things.
Any time a bad guy is portrayed without any shred of empathy, we should be skeptical.
Further, as much as the series makes a point—a tragic and important point—about the dehumanizing rhetoric that often fuels injustice (words like “animals,” “wolf pack,” and “wilding” are repeatedly used to describe the boys), its over-the-top depiction of Fairstein might be guilty of dehumanization as well.
To be sure, the scope and scale here are vastly different. The injustice inflicted on the boys by Fairstein is far greater than the “injustice” inflicted by the filmmakers in how they portrayed her. For decades, cries for criminal justice reform have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps a louder, more forceful approach like this (even if less nuanced) is necessary to effect change. Certainly When They See Us has brought attention to the Central Park Five case—and the broader web of injustice in which it is a part—like nothing has before, to the point that prosecutors Lederer and Fairstein have been forced to resign from boards and professorships after all these years.
Fairstein recently published an op-ed in the The Wall Street Journal in which she calls DuVernay’s series “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication,” and then deconstructs what she claims are the series’ “most egregious falsehoods.” To read Fairstein’s defense—even while taking it with more than a grain of salt—and to watch When They See Us is to be left in the disorienting epistemological place that is increasingly our new normal in the post-truth era (see also: HBO’s Chernobyl).
Whose take on the facts is most accurate? What actually happened in Central Park on April 19, 1989? Can we ever know for sure? Is justice uninfected by bias a pipe dream?
Justice for All
Questions like these leave us aching for true, transcendent justice: the rule of a righteous, divine judge who sees all and judges all according to the only perfect standard (himself).
Why are we so broken by series like When They See Us, or Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America (2016), which show the tension of justice not being served? Because we are created by a God who loves justice (Isa. 61:8) and calls us to practice it (Micah 6:8). We feel indignation at injustice because we are created in the image of a God “who feels indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11).
It’s right to feel indignation. It’s right to watch things like When They See Us and feel our blood boil as we behold injustice. But we must also be careful to not trivialize injustice by instrumentalizing it as ammo in a partisan “proxy war.” That two of the four words in the series’ title are us and they says something about how much our discourse about justice is defined along entrenched polemical lines.
That two of the four words in the series’ title are ‘us’ and ‘they’ says something about how much our discourse about justice is defined along entrenched polemical lines.
As Christians we must fight for truth and justice across the board—not only as part of an “us vs. them” battle where the “them” (whoever it may be) is always the source of injustice and the “us” is always the source of truth. To pursue justice rightly is to recognize that the problem is never only “out there.” It’s also in our own communities, our own hearts, our own sins. To admit that internal dynamic is not to diminish the urgency of fighting external and systemic injustices. It is to elevate the importance of confronting both.