The New York City teenagers Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Antron McCray were not born in the wild. The boys, who were all arrested in 1989 after a 28-year-old white woman was brutally raped and abandoned in Central Park, called the sweltering metropolis their home. Their world was one of concrete and cookouts, basketball and barber shops. Before their arrest, the teens crested through their city with youthful ebullience. They were “just baby boys.”
But in the days following the rape of Trisha Meili, the teens—ages 14 to 16—transmogrified into a “wolf pack.” They became “savage.” Meili, who became known as the “Central Park jogger,” was often characterized as their “prey.” The flurry of media attention reached a galling crescendo when Donald J. Trump, then a local real-estate mogul, purchased full-page ads in four New York publications calling for the return of the death penalty so that the boys could be executed.
The boys eventually became known as the “Central Park Five,” a pithy moniker picked up by local and national media outlets that served as much to undercut their humanity as it did to free up copy space. “If they had their way,” Salaam told CNN in 2012, 10 years after a man named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and two years before the Central Park Five received a $41 million settlement from the City of New York, “we would have been hanging from one of those lovely trees here in Central Park.”
In When They See Us, the Ava DuVernay–helmed miniseries now streaming on Netflix, the director lays out the all-too-common process by which the five black and Latino teens were convicted of a crime they did not commit. In rendering their journeys, DuVernay pays careful attention to the terrifying power of language, especially the animalistic rhetoric with which prosecutors and journalists referred to the teens. (Trump is referenced often, particularly in the second installment; he is depicted as the most powerful of the boys’ zealous detractors, not the sole purveyor of racial animus.)
In its early installments, When They See Us implicates New York media, and the ensuing frenzy of the public, in spurring along the boys’ wrongful verdicts. The series re-creates the glee with which people seized upon words such as wildin’, common slang for any range of boisterous behavior, as evidence of the boys’ inherent criminality. When They See Us answers the how.
The series enters a broader landscape of artistic reckoning with the Central Park Five case, as well as with the country’s history of weaponizing language against black and brown people. Most immediately, a new project from the artist and journalist Alexandra Bell appears in this year’s Whitney Biennial. No Humans Involved—After Sylvia Wynter takes its name from a seminal 1994 essay by the scholar and poet. In it, Wynter wrote at length about “NHI,” the unofficial acronym that Los Angeles law enforcement used to classify cases involving black men. Referencing a term coined by the sociologist Helen Fein, Wynter wrote that the acronym, and its attendant category of “nonhuman,” rendered black men (and by extension, all black people) targets for systemic violence:
For the social effects to which this acronym, and its placing outside the “sanctified universe of obligation,” of the category of young Black males to which it refers, leads, whilst not overtly genocidal, are clearly having genocidal effects with the incarceration and elimination of young Black males by ostensibly normal and everyday means.
Bell’s Wynter-inspired series is composed of photo prints she made using an exacting process of lithography and screen-printing. No Humans Involved zeroes in on the New York Daily News coverage of the Central Park Five case. The paper published some of the most egregious reporting on the case—details of the minors’ addresses and family histories, and inflammatory headlines such as “WOLF PACK’S PREY”—well before the case was even (wrongfully) adjudicated. The Daily News also published Trump’s full-page ad. By redacting and highlighting specific text and images from 10 days of the publication’s 1989 issues, Bell underscores the devastating effects of the outlet’s glaring bias against the young black and brown boys. “I really want people to look at [my series] and question the role that the Daily News played in the way we viewed these particular people,” she told The New Yorker recently. “And maybe even in some ways the outcome ultimately of the case.”
When They See Us offers a different pathway to illuminating the effects of these biases. DuVernay’s commitment to portraying the boys before they were ensnared by the case proves most excruciating. Viewers meet Antron (Caleel Harris), Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez), Kevin (Asante Blackk), Korey (Jharrel Jerome), and Yusef (Ethan Herisse) as goofy kids before seeing the process by which the criminal-justice system and media operated in concert to portray them as savages.
The series is at its most heartrending when it shows the boys, and their families, reacting to the ambient fury surrounding them: The horror of their arrest, verdict, and incarceration, and the lingering psychological effects of the whole ordeal ripple out beyond just the five. The teen actors deliver particularly masterly performances—they hold both immense joy and deep vulnerability. To the extent that young black and Latino men still require external humanizing from artistic productions, When They See Us presents a gut-wrenching look at the real-life terror wrought by their ongoing dehumanization.
DuVernay’s work has long documented the sweeping injustices that black and brown people face in America. Selma, her 2014 feature film, followed the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. throughout pivotal moments in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s (and in his own life). Her 2016 documentary, 13th, traced how the Thirteenth Amendment—which abolished slavery—led to mass incarceration. When They See Us, which DuVernay began conceptualizing after Raymond Santana approached the director with the idea via Twitter, charts a more recent history. The Central Park Five case was first reported only three decades ago. The language used to indict the teens in public opinion and the legal ramifications of their case still reverberate now.
When They See Us is a particularly dramatized production, but it’s not the first visual reexamination of the teens’ case. In 2012, the directors Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon debuted The Central Park Five, a documentary reflective of the Barack Obama era in which it was released. “Measured in tone and outraged in its argument, it is an emotionally stirring, at times crushingly depressing cinematic call to witness,” Manohla Dargis wrote in her New York Times review at the time.
DuVernay’s project enters a wildly different political landscape. The man who wielded his money and influence to call for the teens’ execution now occupies the White House. From his perch, he refers to Mexicans as “rapists” and black men as “thugs”; the language of dehumanization has again shed its politesse. It’s understandable, then, if also sometimes frustrating, that When They See Us sometimes abandons subtlety in its references to Trump. The president’s lengthy, bombastic oeuvre of bigotry creates both a moral terror and an artistic quandary.
Still, When They See Us pulls back the language of biased prosecution and journalistic malfeasance to revelatory effect. At the end—despite the cloud of animus that surrounds them—Yusef, Antron, Kevin, Korey, and Raymond get to be human.
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