When They See Us
Director - Ava DuVernay
Cast - Jharrel Jerome, Asante Black, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Marquis Rodriguez, Jovan Adepo, Vera Farmiga, Joshua Jackson, Logan Marshall-Green, Felicity Huffman, Famke Janssen, John Leguizamo, Michael K Williams
Rating - 4/5
A common criticism of the portrayal of women in films and television is that they’re often used as catalysts for the evolution of men. It takes a bad breakup for an artist to develop his voice; it takes a brutalised sister for her brother to feel pain; a broken mother for a son to learn right from wrong.
Mustn’t the same rules then be applied to the films and shows that peddle these tropes, as well? Wouldn’t that be fair?
Earlier this year, the terrific Netflix series Delhi Crime revisited a story whose scars were still too raw. It was about the heinous rape of a young woman, but it focussed almost entirely on the subsequent investigation, which resulted in the arrest and conviction of five men. And now, mere months later, the streaming service has produced a new show, once again about a brutal sexual assault; and once again about the men whose lives it affected.
For all its nobility and the purity of its heart, When They See Us does a disservice to the woman, without whom it would not exist. It restricts her appearance to one courtroom scene, and unlike Delhi Crime, shows her rape. But even by the series’ unusually heightened standards, her’s is the most incredible story of all.
Trisha Meili was 28 when she was attacked, abused, and left to die in New York’s Central Park. It was 1989, and the city wasn’t what it is now. It had a reputation for being unsafe, particularly for women; there was tension among races, and an even stronger animosity towards the police than there is now. Meili wasn’t supposed to survive the attack. She was in a coma for 12 days. She was so badly beaten that a priest even administered last rites. But she lived. And we don’t see this story.
This isn’t a criticism, per se - both Delhi Crime and When They See Us are excellent shows - these are merely ideas, to ponder about and perhaps consider for the future. To put it simply, Meili’s wasn’t the story that creator, co-writer and series director Ava DuVernay wanted to tell. Her show is about the five innocent young black and brown men; children, really - at the time of their arrest they were in the seventh and eighth grades - who were accused of the crime, made to sit through a farce of a trial, and convicted on the basis of the flimsiest evidence. All because they were persons of colour, and the victim - Meili - was white, and rich.
Her rape attracted media attention, and invoked the collective outrage of an entire city. It even inspired the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, to take out expensive advertisements in the newspapers, calling for a return of the death penalty. He’d never done this before, despite the spree of similar cases that had plagued New York that year. The most cynical of us drew similar theories as to why the Delhi gang rape of 2012 was singled out in a city in which, according to the Delhi Police’s annual report, at least five women are raped every day. It happened in an affluent part of town, which meant that the media coverage was considerably higher, as was the pressure on the cops to make breakthroughs.
When They See Us addresses this. And it’s as much about a sensationalist media and the perils of privatised prisons as it is about systemic racism and police brutality - all issues that are close to Ava’s heart. She spoke about them previously in her excellent documentary, 13th.
For three episodes, she dramatises the many injustices that the Central Park Five were put through (including being given that title), from their illegally obtained false confessions to their compromised trials. She doesn’t complicate the structure of the story by introducing unnecessary flashbacks or non-linear editing. When They See Us, for those first three episodes, is a straightforward tale of human perseverance through extraordinary circumstances - classier than your usual true crime series, but almost as simplistically written.
But I was unprepared for episode four - the finale - and the sheer power of what Ava was building towards. At an hour and 28 minutes long, it’s not so much an episode of TV, but a film; one that can be enjoyed independently. It features a star-making turn from Jharrel Jerome, the only actor who plays the young and the old versions of their character. Unlike the four others, his character, Korey Wise, was tried as an adult, and also incarcerated as one. His story is especially heartbreaking; Korey was arrested simply because he insisted on accompanying his friend to the police station. The brutality that he suffered during his 13 years in prison, separated from his friends, was significantly greater, and he is as much a victim as Meili.
Korey’s story required a delicate touch, and Ava is at her warmest, and most furious in that hour-and-a-half. She doesn’t stop at condemning the unfairness of what happened to the five - this has been covered already, in Ken Burns’ essential documentary film, The Central Park Five - but she furthers the conversation, and asks questions about rehabilitation and restitution. She is, as always, joined in this quest by the great cinematographer Bradford Young, who remains unparalleled in his ability to frame a close-up.
When They See Us reaffirmed my faith that despite the endless stream of content that Netflix pushes out every week, and despite its plans of world domination, it’s also, occasionally, doing the Lord’s work.