Over the past several weeks, protests have raged across the United States and in many parts of the world following the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. The anger over Floyd’s death wasn’t born of a single incident, but generations of systematic racism and excessive force by the police against black and brown Americans. Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Grey, Walter Scott, Breanna Taylor, and so many more lives have been lost to the status quo.
The story of five innocent boys who were wrongfully accused and convicted of a heinous crime decades ago is a part of that narrative. Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam, who became known as the Central Park Five, are the subject of Ava DuVernay’s 2019 Netflix miniseries When They See Us.
The miniseries is the dramatisation of the real-life story of these five boys who were arrested in the April of 1989 in New York after they were accused of raping and brutally attacking a jogger in Central Park. The attack was so severe that she lost all memory of that night and suffered long-term physical and emotional repercussions.
Each episode deals with a different part of their story — the arrest, the legal proceedings, the release from prison on parole, and their ultimate exoneration. The boys (played by Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Marquis Rodriguez and Jharrel Jerome) were between the ages of 14 and 16 and were questioned for over 40 hours by investigators (in some cases, without the presence of an adult). The first episode portrays each of the boys facing detectives and officers who lead them into making statements confessing to crimes they did not commit, all while being promised that they could go back to their homes and families if they only cooperated. These boys made the unfortunate error of trusting an adult they assumed was on their side.
Rewatching When They See Us, it isn’t hard to see how these boys weren’t just railroaded by the police, but also the legal system in the form of prosecutors, judges and juries, and the media too which did not hesitate to sensationalise the story. Though their statements did not match and there were gaping holes in the timeline, there was no DNA evidence to tie any of the five teens to the scene of the crime. However, they were each convicted and imprisoned. While four of the younger boys were sent to juvenile detention centers, the fifth, Korey, was 16 and had to go to an adult prison.
The power of DuVernay’s series is in showing the viewer how this wrongful conviction hung over their heads, even after they were released from prison on parole. Episode 3, a truly masterful piece of storytelling, depicts grown-up versions of Kevin, Antron, Yusef and Raymond (played by Justin Cunningham, Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk and Freddy Miyares) returning to their old home and neighborhoods after years in prison. But their attempts to adapt can only go so far in a world that’s labelled them with hate and derision. Antron must reckon with his father, who abandoned him when trial was ongoing, when he needed him the most. Raymond tries desperately to find work, but even in the simple act of filling a job application, he realises that every box he checks — for felon, for sex offender — undermines his efforts. On his second day out of prison, Yusef goes to get a haircut and tells the barber he is considering becoming a teacher, using the time he’s spent buried in books to find a vocation. The barber, however, tells him that he won’t be able to get a state license to teach due to his conviction. “Once you’ve been inside, they’ve got you and they keep you,” he tells Yusef. Kevin sums up his experience in a line that hits us like a ton of bricks: “I never thought I’d grow up to be someone that people hated."
The fourth episode deals entirely with Korey Wise (Jherrel Jerome continues to play Korey as an adult in a heart-wrenching performance). Korey is forced to bounce between multiple prisons and is subjected to abuse and brutal violence from inmates and wardens who never fail to remind him of a crime he didn’t commit. The tragedy of Korey’s story is that he was only implicated because he accompanied his friend Yusef to the police station the day he was questioned. In his cell, he remembers the night in question. He’s sitting at a fast food joint eating fried chicken with his girlfriend, when a friend taps on the window, beckoning him to join them in the park. In real life, he goes with his friend. But in his dream, he allows himself to say no, to consider how his life would have turned out if he had stayed with his girlfriend that night, instead of going to the park, where the rape occurred. Together, they go to Coney Island instead, a beachside amusement park and a reminder of what life should have been like for a 16-year-old kid from Harlem.
When the real rapist confesses to the crime, the five men are freed and finally exonerated for their crimes, after spending between six to more than 13 years in prison on various felony charges. In 2014, they received a $41 million settlement from the city of New York for the wrongful conviction.
DuVernay’s films often grapple with stories around race in America, including Selma and 13th, both of which are crucial texts to understand what is happening in the United States right now. When They See Us also centres on the American experience, but it’s essential watching for anyone in any country where excessive force by police is the norm. In India too, the custodial deaths of father-son Jayaraj and Bennix in Thoothukudi have fueled protests in Tamil Nadu, as injuries on their bodies have sparked allegations of police brutality. People are quick to post a black square on Instagram or hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on posts. But the men of the Central Park Five, and so many others, must be heard if we are to understand how innocent lives can be devastated by a vicious system.