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.