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.
What this means is a miniseries that’s both profoundly rich and extraordinarily hard to watch. There’s barely time to process the characters before they’re plunged headfirst into a nightmare, a setup that lets viewers experience some of their spiraling confusion. One April night in Harlem, five boys see a group of their peers, noisy and exuberant, heading into Central Park. They follow them in: Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), the “loyal to the soil” Yankees fan; Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), the peacock of the group; Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), who leaves his outraged girlfriend in a fast-food joint to join his friend Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse); and Kevin. Everything happens in a blink. The group jeers at some passing cyclists, who are irritated by the fact that they’re blocking the path. Kevin watches, alarmed, when he sees a guy being beaten up. Then there are sirens and the sounds of police scanners and teenagers scattering into the wind, except for the few who happen to be arbitrarily scooped up on the same night a female jogger is raped, brutally beaten, and left for dead.
It’s hard, given the plain circumstances the series lays out, to comprehend the mental gymnastics employed by the sex-crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein (played here by Felicity Huffman) to reason that five boys being questioned by the police as potential witnesses might be suspects instead. It’s simpler to see how coded language and institutional racism might have helped Fairstein persuade pliant NYPD officers to coerce confessions: Where a colleague (played by Famke Janssen) sees “a dozen kids harassing cyclists in the park,” Fairstein sees “animals” and “little thugs.” Even when the boys break, after being questioned for 30 hours without food or sleep, and without any kind of legal representation, their confessions are contradictory, nonsensical, and heartbreakingly naive. Kevin is so young at 14 that he visibly panics when the cop interviewing him starts describing sexual acts. Korey stutters earnestly through his own statement, saying, “This is my first … extreme I did to any kind of female.”
The tremendous dexterity of the five actors cast as the teenagers, and the emotional texture written into the story, makes the first episode heartrending. It doesn’t get easier. The second captures the trial; the third, which brings in four older actors to play the characters as adults (Jerome does double duty as Korey), tracks the experiences of Kevin, Antron, Yusef, and Raymond in juvenile detention, and their difficulties adjusting to release. But the fourth, which runs nearly 90 minutes long and portrays 16-year-old Korey’s path into an adult prison and the strange events that led to the entire group’s exoneration, is so enraging and brutal to watch that it almost threatens to lose viewers entirely. What makes it vital, though, is Jerome’s performance as a kid growing up in front of our eyes, under the most outrageous circumstances. The 21-year-old actor, best known for playing the teenage Kevin in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, manages to make Korey seem permanently on the verge of breaking, while also conveying the trust he gives out so easily—a trait that only makes him more vulnerable to the abuses of others.
DuVernay also incorporates moments of striking beauty and sentiment into her story that put bleak scenes into sharper contrast. Antron’s mother, Linda (Marsha Stephanie Blake), gets a wrenching monologue where she tells her son that no matter how much the world hates him, she loves him enough to counter it. Kevin’s sister, Angela (Kylie Bunbury), finds a rare moment of hope in a Thrifty rental-car center. The cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, Arrival, Solo) uses light in uncommon ways, filming Huffman’s Fairstein with a bright halo behind her in one scene that casts her face into murky squalor. The final episode, which tracks Korey’s 12 years of incarceration, swings between confinement and moments of release, literal and imaginative. And throughout, DuVernay recreates 1980s and 2000s New York with a powerful eye (and ear) for totems of time and place.
When They See Us is studded with guest actors of note—Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams, and John Leguizamo as parents of the accused; Joshua Jackson, Blair Underwood, and Christopher Jackson as defense lawyers; Vera Farmiga as a district attorney; Dascha Polanco as a flatly awful stepmother. The appearance that seems the most inevitable is Donald Trump, whose cable-news grandstanding during the trial involved arguing for the death penalty for the teenagers, while maximizing his own exposure. The archival moment feels necessary, while being mercifully restrained. This story isn’t about him. The events DuVernay races through, the scenes she writes that are obviously invented for dramatic effect or to underscore a point—they all serve the greater purpose of taking the words Central Park Five and razing what they’ve come to mean. In their stead, she’s letting five men whose narratives were stolen be seen in their complexity.