Spoiler alert. I want whoever is reading this to know that this review is filled with spoilers. if you have not watched When They See Us on Netflix and do not want the show to be ruined please do not read further. If this is traumatic and reading this will haunt you, please do not read this.
When They See Us in my opinion, was the most beautiful rendition of a horrifying event that occurred that I’ve ever seen. It tells the story of five young boys who were falsely accused of raping a young white woman and Central Park in 1989. April 18th, 1989 to be exact. This is a horror film for black and brown men and women. It is a horrifying tale of how bigotry and hate can have no limits or restrictions. It is a story of the exonerated 5, no longer the Central Park five Oprah proclaimed. I’ve never seen something so beautiful yet so mortifying in my life. So many times I saw myself in these young men, so many times I felt the pain they felt. And I wept every single time. From the beginning of the show, I knew what I was getting into and I felt my palms sweating, my body shaking, and the two tear ducts in the back of my eyes begin to flow. I felt the pain, the rage, the frustration, the fear. Again, this is a tale of how bigotry can go so far as to destroy the lives of innocent, black men. This is When They See Us.
The sheer Horrors that these five young men went through, no one can explain. However, Ava DuVernay, the director, was able to tell this story so marvelously that you can’t even put it into words properly. This show was important for so many people because they did not know the story. There are so many people that told me they did not know who the Central Park Five (now Exonerated Five) were. So many people did not know that these five boys spent so many years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Became convicted felons for a crime they did not commit. There were so many people did not know the trauma and the horrors they went through in the process of a corrupt Police Department and the Vicious Cycle of white supremacy.
Ava’s film When They See US reveals to the world how devastating, and oppressive the justice system is to black and brown bodies. Yes, we have seen this film many times in many different ways. Many of us are tired of seeing this because we lived it. So many people said that they did not want to see this. I myself was one of them. Watching this film took so much energy out of me. The film drained me for days, it felt as if it were my story simply because I know how it feels to be black in America. Every black and brown man and woman is a victim of a system that was designed to detain, oppress, and instill fear into. If you are black or brown in America most likely you or a loved one has been a victim of the justice system, the corrupt justice system that we live in. This is not an anomaly that occurs to only the select few. So many black and brown men and women are arrested, or questioned, or falsely accused, or beaten, or attacked by police and detectives around America for “fitting a description”. Or being in space place of a crime. Or being at the wrong place at the wrong time. For these five young black men, their dreams were shattered on the night of April 18th, 1989. All five of them were 16 and younger.
This is us, this is the horror we live in. I cannot say this enough, it hurts so much to watch this. I do not recommend watching this for anyone if you are black or brown. However, their story needed to be told.
As horrifying as it was to watch this I loved every second of it. This is because The film told their story. It revealed the mortifying truth that these men hold to this day. Personally, I met Yusef Salaam at one point in time. I was at NCORE, the National Conference of race and ethnicity in 2014. And I went to his conference, and he told his story. So for me personally I had to watch this, because I felt I owed it to all five and because I heard my brother’s story and wanted a visual of his trauma. I had known about the Exonerated Five’s story long before this video series came out. This was a personal journey I had to go through, to see the pain in my brothers from another mother and what they went through. Like I said this could have been me, or one of my six brothers, friends, or cousins. This is because when they see us, they don’t see young men trying to live out the American dream. They don’t see doctors, lawyers, musicians, firemen, policemen, politicians, writers, dreamers. No, they see animals.
From the very first episode, I was hooked, when the boys decided to go out and see the mob go into Central Park. They felt like any young boy, seeing a bunch of boys go to have fun just walking around. None of them knew that these boys were “wildin”. It was a joy to get in to see the different stages the young boys were in at the point in time and the first part of the series. Watching Kevin Richardson see the group of young black boys walking to the park and wanting to go into there and see what was going on. You felt like a child wanting to be cool, wanting to be with the rest of the boys. He had no idea what he was walking into. None of them did. Seeing Raymond Santana Jr converse with his friends as he walked to the park looking as if he was trying to be cool and Profiling himself. Watching Yusef go and pick up Korey as the two both went into the park. Watching Korey leave his girl, to walk with the boys. I felt every moment of it. I could see myself in every one of those boys. Even Antron. You can see the young men in each and every one of them at different stages and different interest in their lives. But, they walked into that park, and that decision was potentially the worst of their lives. How many of us have been victims of the wrong place at the wrong time, making one bad decision and regretting it for the rest of your life?
None of them did anything that night, they were just being boys walking into a park. This right here is the horror we live in. We cannot be boys. Still in high school. At the point in time a couple of them with 13. As black and brown boys we are tried as men, we are seen as vicious animals. And that was proven within the next few minutes of the film. We saw reality hit when the boys witnessed some of the other boys were violently attacking people, “wildin”. We see it in the police proceeding to assault and attack these boys. Kevin Richardson was assaulted in the park by a police officer and he did nothing. Left with a black eye, and arrested at 13. You can see the sheer fear in the faces of every one of those boys eyes.
something that was terrifying in this part of this episode was watching Linda Fairstein attempt to create an investigation out of this entire scenario. The sheer desire to convict these young men of a crime they did not commit. But still, she put together the pieces of two separate crimes to reach a verdict for an issue that she personally felt. As a human being, you must be vile and volatile in nature to commit to such an act.
Granted rape is wrong. No, rape is horrible and no one should ever commit rape. However, this woman had so much conviction, so much fervor to set an example that she went out of her way to try and convince a police department to round up every black and brown boy they see. She went out of her way to try and convict young black boys of a crime they had not even conceived in their minds. And the length she went to to get these young black boys no one human being should even Fathom. Yeah, this is the reality we live in, for so many police departments across America this occurs. This occurred in 1989, it occurred in 1945, it occurs in 2019 today.
Something I want to comment on is how many people could have stopped this. Nancy Ryan, a senior prosecutor in New York saw Linda Fairstein’s actions and could have easily stalled this prosecution. She simply said “good luck”, and walked away after Fairstein gave a speech in an attempt to convince the police department to go out and find any black boy they could that fit the descriptions. I don’t know if that makes her just as worse of a person, I do believe she could have done something to stop this before it started. Or maybe she just didn’t believe that this was going to go as far as It possibly could. Even so, she could have done something could have saved these boys lives.
The following that ensued was mortifying say the least. Watching these police officers go find these young black men. Pulling them off the street stopping and frisking them to find who they can identify as culprits. Going from victims and witnesses to suspects in a matter of hours. Reports say that they went to people’s doors to find these young black men. However, the boys reported that Salaam was found off the street. That’s what happened in the series. Korey followed him because he was just looking out for his friend. That sign of loyalty is something that any black men or women could feel. You could relate to the fear on Yusef’s face when he was being stopped by the police officer and interrogated. you can see the confusion on Korey Wise’s face when the officer asked him if he wanted to come down to the station with Yusef.
The part with Antron’s parents was painful. From when they found out the son had been arrested, To the father being confused and it hurt to find out. You can see the exhaustion on his face. You could almost see the disappointment in his expression. As if to say why were you even in the park at that point in time. This was important. So many black parents tell their children to be careful when they go outside, be back before the streetlights. Don’t go out with the crowd doing things are not supposed to be doing. And so many of us don’t listen and it gets us into situations like this. This is because police officers take the liberty to abuse their authority in these moments, much like this situation. This is the reason why our parents tell us not to do these things. At that moment, no parent wants their child to go through that. You could see Antron’s father’s fear when he had to tell his son to do what the officer told him, and watching both of them being condescended upon by a police officer. He didn’t want his son to be in trouble but what could he say.
The yes sir, no sir, just trying not to be assaulted or worse is a fear that many black Americans still feel today. It is a simple survival tactic. This is just a retelling of a story that so many of us have felt so many times. And it hurt every single second that I watched it.
Watching these boys be interrogated being attacked, screamed at, isolated from their parents was intense. These moments were captured amazingly. They were in there for 42 hours, no food, no water, no sleep. Being told to admit to a crime they had not committed. Being told to tell on people that they had no idea existed. These officers accused these children, they coerced them into confessions, made them sign paperwork saying that these statements were true. Without the consent of their parents, or supervision of their parents. Then watching their parents finding out when it was too late was exhausting. Watching these kids cry and scream that they just want to go home and then they didn’t know anything was hard to watch. You wonder how someone could sit there and terrorize children in such a manner. To have them chained to the chair at 14 13 15 years old. I don’t know what I felt worse, the anger, or the fear that this could have been me or any one of the people I know that look like me. I felt the tears running down my eyes and my body shaking as I watched the scenes. I wanted to turn away so many times. But I had to persevere and it hurt so much. Watching Raymond cry, watching Kevin cry, watching Antron cry in front of his parents. His mother leaving the room, and then the officer blackmailing his father, and forcing his father to turn against him.
I felt so much rage toward the father as well. But I also felt what he was going through. No, I don’t give him any sympathy, at that moment he could have stopped this too. “No, you’re not about to Blackmail me to condemn my son.” Is what you could have said. Instead, he let his fear take over him. He did what no parent should ever attempt to do. He panicked at that moment, and destroyed his own son’s future, destroyed his son’s life. And that little boy cried as he told a false confession, that moment was so heart-wrenching, I felt the disgust fall from my body as if I were vomiting it towards the tv in a mortifying fashion. Never in my life have I seen such cowardice.
Moving on from that, watching the other boys parents go through what they went through only added to my fury. Raymond’s father not being able to be present while the son was being interrogated, then coming late after his son had already confessed to the crime he didn’t commit, that one hurt. Being confused at the moment having to watch his son cry and say “Dad I got this, I made a deal.” Yusef’s mother coming in and snatching her son up before he did something he was going to regret. That was my favorite scene in Part one. Threatening to call the New York Times, that was brilliant. His mother knew exactly what to do and the “Shame on you” she gave to Fairnstien, classic. I wish the two had more interactions after this, that would’ve been epic. Seeing Antron’s mother crying out the room, and Kevin sister being confused and coerced to signing over paperwork was heartbreaking. Then there was Korey’s mother not knowing what the hell was going on at any point in time and being questioned by the press. I commend Yusef’s mother for the presence and knowledge she had. She didn’t back down when facing in Linda Fairstein even when she asked for ID. She knew exactly what she was getting into and what to do at that moment and she got her son out of there.
Elizabeth Lederer was another one that could have stopped this all. Just before Linda Fairstein presented the case to her she saw all the holes Within. And she still went through with the prosecution. Even after she said that there was no way this case was going to go through and that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict these boys. Then proceeding to question Korey Wise after he’d been assaulted in a closet and told to make a false admission to a crime he had no idea about. Seeing her face when she knew she what she was doing was wrong, yet still let everything happen, she could’ve stopped this easily. She gets no sympathy at all either. She knew all along what she was doing was wrong, she had no attachment to any of this, yet she proceeded. As if Linda Fairstein had some type of Stranglehold on her. As if her job depended on it she continued. Without saying a word against it. in my interpretation, she’s just as worse as Fairstein. She’s a symbol of those that know what they’re doing is wrong but won’t speak up about it out of fear of persecution or exile. I remember watching Selma one day and hearing the lines of a couple of white boys beating up another group of white people who fought for social justice. “You know what the only thing worse than niggers? White Niggers” and then proceeded to beat and kill the people. That’s what I felt when I saw Elizabeth Ledger. As if she was afraid of being a “Nigger helper”, rather than fully seen these boys as boys, she was more afraid of her image. She could have stopped at the anytime, chosen to not take the case.
Lastly, Korey Wise’s significance in this whole scenario is the saddest part. Yusef left him. He was scared of his mind and crying. Korey came to help out his friend, and he just left him. Not on purpose. Then to see Korey tortured and beaten, then forced to make a false confession had to sicken any viewer. Watching him make that confession, he looked so terrified. He just wanted to go home. This proved to be the biggest mistake of his life. He had no idea, so many of these young black men have no idea of the justice system and their rights. Korey is a poster child for this. This isn’t his fault, he had nothing to do with anything. He wasn’t even on the list.
Linda Fairstein put the pieces together, made a false story, made something out of nothing. And then proceeded the ruin five boys lives. When we saw Korey be taken into the closet he was sleeping waiting for Yusef. To think of what that boy went through when he found out his friend wasn’t there anymore and then to be attacked and not know what was going on. Being beaten by police officers, the men that were sworn to protect and serve you. You could almost feel the fear in his heart, it was like seeing your greatest fears coming to life. You never expected any of that to occur in your young life. The officers assault him inside of a closet, and then to ask him to make a false confession. Good cop bad cop method. The worst part was watching him on video give a false confession, there was nothing more tear-jerking. Because at that moment you know he condemned himself, and the rest of those five boys. And he didn’t even go home. All he wanted to do was go home.
This happens all the time. Police officers intimidate and interrogate, torture, and assault young black and brown men and women to get false confessions. And promised them they can go home once they say what they want to hear. All you got to do is tell us the truth, What truth? So many young black and brown women don’t know the system, they’re often coerced through illegal activity to tell officers what they want to hear cuz they just want to go home. Not knowing that you have the right to remain silent. This is important for people, you have the right to remain silent. These boys didn’t know that right and that’s not their fault. They shouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with. The police committed so many different crimes in these interrogations that you can’t even understand the type of unbelievable, terrifying, inhumane acts they proceeded to commit.
Episode 1 was a tone-setter, The pain, the rage, the hurt was all felt in this gut-wrenching episode. The scary part was I was screaming inside ” When is this going to be over?” Yet compelled to continue watching. Ava DuVernay directed this perfectly to draw in the viewer. This was an excellent way to tell the beginning of a story.
This Is What It Feels to be black in America. This Is How They See Us Part 1 review. Stay tuned for part 2.