Typically indulging in any type of entertainment — be it music, books, sports or television — is a form of escape. Work, school, bills and the doldrums of the day are temporarily put aside to occupy a different space of thought and experience. Watching an emotionally heavy mini-series about how our justice system failed five teenagers is probably not most people’s idea of a good time.
When They See Us is a four-part Netflix mini-series which chronicles the horrific, true story of the Central Park Five case of 1989 where five teenagers were accused and wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of a female jogger. The series is presented from the perspective of these boys whose lives were upended by a miscarriage of justice and the viewer is left wondering, “What if all boys were created equal?”
In this body of work, Ava DuVernay, the Academy and Golden Globe nominated filmmaker, demonstrates her mastery of storytelling and vision. She’s assisted by the young, phenomenal actors who assume the roles of Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise.
Much of the praise the series has received since its May 31 debut has been dulled by social media declarations of some who say they can’t watch it. “It’s too heavy,” “It hits too close to home” and “I don’t want those images in my head” are the reasons among many as to why they refuse to engage.
While it may be difficult to stomach in parts, I say with all due respect and sensitivity, you need to watch it.
If there are any adolescents in the proximity of your influence, you have a responsibility to watch it with them and then have a conversation about it afterward.
The justice system failed those boys and it’s still failing Black and Brown children today. Though some might argue that it’s not failing at all because it wasn’t designed for us.
The justice system is working exactly how it was designed to work. It protects white men at large and their interests. I mean our own Constitution still allows for slavery in 2019.
The 13th Amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
In other words, slavery was officially abolished when this Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1865. But not so fast, free person. That statement is qualified with, “except as a punishment for crime.” So if you’re incarcerated, whether it’s for petty or severe reasons, you are not subject to that prohibition of slavery.
This should be clear why, in many areas of our country, over-policing and profiling is so prevalent. There’s profit to be made and thus we have what is known as the Prison Industrial Complex. That’s the term that’s been used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use policing, surveillance and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.
The irony is that this system only serves the interests of those who would profit from it and not the people, also known as taxpayers, who actually fund the government.
When They See Us demonstrates the heartbreaking reality in fine detail that the justice system isn’t justice for all, but it doesn’t conclude without hope. While the series is not a feel-good story of overcoming, it is an excellent example of persevering in the face of insurmountable obstacles.
Obviously, we love being portrayed as powerful figures as opposed to seeing our reflections in the defeated ones. At the same time, we have a responsibility to tell the entire narrative. We can’t just turn our backs on the shadowed parts of us because it doesn’t leave us warm and fuzzy.
While it may be hard to watch to this dramatization of atrocities that befell our boys, we have to be the conduit that we might bear witness to others so that it happens less. We have a social responsibility, despite being uncomfortable.
It’s almost like showing up for jury duty. While it may be inconvenient at the moment, if we aren’t represented in a court of law, who do you think is going to look out for us? We are the peers that should be in that jury. Please don’t be that person who wants to get out of jury duty. It’s not always about you, but I digress.
When They See Us is an important film for every American to watch.
Note: I didn’t say “every Black American” because this isn’t a Black film. This is a body of work that shines a light on the modern justice system in America where all people are not treated equal or with equity. It’s essential that you see, know and share this.
Can you imagine what it’s like to be in the body of someone who is not seen except for the benefit of brutalizing and punishing? Can you imagine what it’s like to be seen only as a reference to an animal that needs to be put down?
This film will leave you with a more profound sense of solidarity and reverence to those who have suffered greatly.
We all want to be seen. This film needs to be seen — by you.