Ava DuVernay's 'When They See Us' is an emotional roller-coaster torn between warmth and rage

Ava DuVernay's 'When They See Us' is an emotional roller-coaster torn between warmth and rage

It is always bad news when you're stuck at the wrong place at the wrong time, and unfortunately, for these five kids, the night of April 19, 1989, happened to be the worst one that changed their lives forever.

Ava DuVernay's 'When They See Us' is a four-part dramatization of the 'Central Park Five', a moniker that stuck to the five Harlem teenagers arrested (wrongly) in 1989 for the rape and attempted murder of Trisha Meili, a 28-year old investment banker, who was jogging at the time.  Over the course of the series, DuVernay makes no attempt to reinvestigate the case, but rather depicts the lives of five individuals whose identities take a serious hit and leaves them scarred for life.

The first episode starts off on a lively note with the five teens going about their day normally. One starts with tempting his girlfriend to get some fried chicken at Kennedy's, while the other has a skirmish with his dad about his loyalty to the Yankees. Another teen wants to make the first trumpet in his school band, except that, that would be the last "normal" day of their lives.

Marquis Rodriguez plays Raymond Santana, one of the first teens to be coerced. (IMDb)

There's not much time to get an idea of the characters as they are shoved headfirst into a nightmare that even they cannot believe is actually happening to them, and what moves the viewers is that they are able to fathom the distress the teens undergo. On a chilly April night, the five teens with a noisy bunch of peers, extremely carefree, make their way to Central Park. 

Anton McCray (Caleel Harris), the Yankees fan; Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriquez), who cannot stop checking himself out; Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome) who first cajoles his girlfriend to eating fried chicken at Kennedy's to join his pal Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse); and finally, Kevin (Asante Blackk), the youngest of the lot, who wants to make the trumpet in school —  are all at the park while 'Fight the Power' by Public Enemy plays in the background.


What happens next takes place in a flash. The peers take some digs at the cyclists, and then, the police sirens blare out, scattering the teens. Some of them manage to give the red and blue chaps the slip, except for the few who are whimsically rounded up on the same night a female jogger was brutally raped and left bleeding to death.

What is even outrageous is the fact that these teens, detained without food or water, are coerced. The actors do a brilliant job portraying their naiveness, and it is distressing to see the treatment dished out mainly due to their color. Even more hard to comprehend is the rationale used by sex-crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) to explain that the five boys being questioned by the cops as prime witnesses might actually be suspects.

What moves the viewers is that they are able to get understand the distress that the teens go through. (IMDb)

It is also easy to see how Harlem lingo and some coherent racism makes her persuade the NYPD officers to force the boys (often by means of physical torture) to admit to a crime that they didn't commit.  While her colleague, Nancy Ryan (Famke Janssen) looks at it as a bunch of kids jeering at cyclists, Fairstein deduces them to be "animals". 

Eventually, the boys give in, but their confessions are heartbreakingly innocent. For instance, 14-year old Kevin looks wide-eyed and confused when a cop interrogating him describes the sexual acts. Watching the series doesn't get any easier. The second episode chronicles the trial and the third sees the teens all grown up and captures their behind-the-bars experiences.

The final episode is quite long (running close to an hour-and-a-half) and details Korey's time in prison. Jerome dishes out a stellar performance as a kid who is constantly on the edge. It also sees the strange and unexpected turn of events that lead to the men being exonerated. Except that, the sequence is so antagonizing and unsparing that it becomes difficult to watch, even if it means that the five finally get their freedom. 


DuVernay also throws in some moments that make the series sharper. The final episode swings with Korey's moods, between solitary confinement and slivers of hope. And all through the series, the 1980s is reconstructed with some brilliant attention to detail. 'When They See Us' also casts noteworthy actors Michael K. Williams, Joshua Jackson, Niecy Nash, Vera Farmiga, and Dascha Polanco. Plus, Donald Trump gets a bit of screentime as he appears on cable television arguing for the death penalty of the criminals.

Ultimately, 'When They See Us' is about DuVernay giving the five a chance to get their narratives out to the world. The docu-drama series is most definitely a must see.

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