The loss of innocence is a theme that writers can take entire novels to document. Ava DuVernay manages the same feat in fewer than eight minutes. That’s all the time it takes in When They See Us for five kids to tussle with parents over Yankees loyalty, cajole girlfriends into accompanying them to Kennedy Fried Chicken, and tell sisters about their audacious plans to make first trumpet in the school band. One minute, Kevin Richardson (played by Asante Blackk) is gently placing a blanket over his mother who’s asleep on the couch, the room around him glowing a warm, protective orange. The next, he’s in the stark blue cold of Central Park, a tiny figure in a red padded coat, running away from a cop who drags Kevin to the ground and knocks him unconscious with a vicious blow to the head.
When They See Us, whose four episodes arrive on Netflix this Friday, was originally titled The Central Park Five, a nomenclature that stuck to the five Harlem teenagers arrested in 1989 for the rape and attempted murder of a 28-year-old female jogger. Catchy and dehumanizing, the phrase enabled the boys to become scapegoats not just for a single crime, but also for a whole city’s feverish paranoia. These are the kinds of societal fault lines and historic outrages that true-crime miniseries typically love to probe. When They See Us is different. DuVernay, who directed and co-wrote all four episodes, isn’t particularly interested in reinvestigating this case, or even in delving into the circumstances that led up to it. Her motivation, rather, is to delineate five individuals whose identities were erased and rewritten before they’d even had the chance to finish eighth grade. This is a work that wants viewers to see these people, and the fullness of their humanity, above everything else.