In late May of 2019, a short television series called “When They See Us,” directed by Ava Duvernay, was released onto Netflix. The series is based on the Central Park jogger case from the 1980s, where five Black and Hispanic boys were wrongfully convicted of raping a woman.
The series focuses on the story in four distinct parts. The first episode centers on the crime and the five boys being coerced by the police, whereas the second episode is mostly about the two trials. The third focuses on the boys who went to juvenile detention being released and their new lives as registered sex offenders, and the fourth and final episode is about Korey Wise and his time in an actual prison. Wise was the only one out of the five who was 16, therefore he qualified to be put into a penitentiary instead of juvie. He spent the most time in jail (13 years) and also faced many more hardships, including being beaten to near death, solitary confinement, etc.
Certain scenes were hard for me to watch, not only because it made me sad, but because I honestly had never experienced the social injustice and blatant racism that these boys faced. The coercion performed by law enforcement in this series is not altogether different from the government forces at play today. The terrible inequities that occurred in real life (and are portrayed in the series) became much more digestible through the series’ lens of triumph and celebration for the black community.
Halfway through Episode 1, I was beginning to get emotional and distraught about what I was seeing, and to get through it I had to look up where the five boys are modern-day and see what happiness they have in their lives now to remind me that it did get better for them.
The director, Duvernay, also had this idea in mind when curating the series. She wanted it to be all for these five men, and to live up to their expectations and honor them. So while she did have to include the painful moments, she simply wanted the men to be proud of how she represented them and the struggle that they went through. For me, I tried to think of it this way and how much pride these men probably have in how brilliantly this series was made.
When it comes to how black people have been and are continually oppressed in our country, we like to somewhat sweep it under the rug and instead of address it, simply feel bad about it but never have true discussions about it. The coercion performed by law enforcement in this series is not altogether different from the government forces at play today. Choosing to watch the series during Black History Month was completely coincidental, but it also helped me to think about how without this series, I wouldn’t have even known about this case and how detrimental it is to black people in this country.
I don’t think it is a shameful thing that I didn’t know about the case until about a year ago. Rather, it’s an example of how instead of educating youth like me on the oppression over the years, past and present evidence of racism just doesn’t get talked about and is silenced. We must recognize the triumphs and injustices that different ethnicities and races have gone through instead of diminishing them.