After watching Netflix’s upcoming miniseries When They See Us ahead of its release, here are five observations.
1. While the tragic tale of the Central Park Five is at least vaguely familiar to most, this miniseries does an exceptional job of exploring the myriad of ways in which Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise fell prey to a cruel cocktail of apathy and coercion.
In delving into the rotted core of the Big Apple, very few details are spared over the course of four mesmeric episodes. We bear witness to a lead prosecutor who ignores her moral objections in favor of convicting children she knows are innocent. We bristle as investigators pervert and contort the truth, causing families to burst at the seams. We watch helplessly as trauma engulfs the serenity of Black Boy Joy, and the promise of tomorrow becomes the gruesome scars of yesterday. As such, it’s a lot to endure. Almost too much.
At the screening I attended at Netflix, various audience members fought off violent sobs while others excused themselves entirely from the rest of the series after reaching their breaking point. Another attendee and I had to take a walk while fighting back tears because we were so distraught by what we had just seen—and we were only halfway done. So due to the tremendous toll that When They See Us can take on your emotional well-being, I strongly recommend preparing yourself accordingly beforehand. This is your trigger warning.
2. Like many black men who will indulge in this series, I saw fragments of myself in each of these victims.
Like Kevin, I was a bit of a musical prodigy. Like Raymond, I was raised by a man whose love for me was obstructed by obligations elsewhere. Like Antron, guilt eventually became an unwelcome member of my family. Like Korey, my childhood loyalties came at a steep cost, and, like Yusef, religion framed my upbringing. But to that point, director Ava DuVernay does an incredible job of not only contextualizing the youth and humanity of these characters but by deconstructing their individual story arcs we form an emotional rapport with each of these kids—and their families—that breaks us in half when the inevitable occurs. When They See Us forces us to look beyond the mystique that surrounds the moniker of “the Central Park Five”and instead acknowledge the miscarriage of justice that destroyed the lives of Korey, Antron, Yusef, Raymond and Kevin—each of whom we now know on a first name basis.
3. The argument can be made that guilt and compassion are two sides of the same coin, and each of these concepts is explored throughout the series.
Unable to come to grips with her role in Kevin’s incarceration, his sister Angie punishes herself by declining the romantic overtures of a client at her job. Because if Kevin isn’t happy rotting away in a jail cell, what gives her the right to be? Meanwhile, Antron’s father Bobby—who’s brilliantly played by Boardwalk Empire and The Wire alumnus Michael K. Williams—allows his relationship with his son to evaporate due to his own guilt over Antron’s incarceration. But what’s heartbreaking about the dynamics between these four characters is that while Angie and Bobby both struggle with forgiving themselves, Bobby is haunted by the infallible shadow of the bulwark he once was to his son—which makes the erosion of their relationship nearly as tragic as Antron’s imprisonment—especially with remorse being such a recurring theme for far too many black fathers.
On the flip side, Korey—the only one who was charged as an adult and in turn is subjected to unspeakable horrors—finds solace in the most unexpected source: a merciful correctional officer who serves as Korey’s only portal to humanity. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition against the imminent danger that surrounds him, but a welcome reprieve from the darkness that consumes the entire series.
4. Expounding upon my previous point, this series beautifully illustrates the infinite well of strength that black and brown families must draw from in order to survive in a world that’s nourished by our demise.
Time after time, each family leans on its community or each other in order to unearth solutions against insurmountable odds. From woefully under-qualified lawyers to $20 collect calls, failure is never an option despite the daunting impossibilities before them. This is not only a testament to their own resilience but illustrates the courage and tenacity required to raise black and brown children in America.
His soul-stirring depiction of Korey Wise is as deft as it is disturbing. When They See Us provides Jerome with the perfect canvas to convey Korey’s gruesome transition into adulthood and his performance will put your jaw on the floor. Hopefully, his otherworldly acting abilities will be rewarded when award season comes back around because this miniseries solidifies his status as one of the most gifted actors in Hollywood at all of 21 years old.
When They See Us debuts on Netflix on May 31.