When They See Us Review: A historical masterpiece that cannot be missed
Director Ava DuVernay crafts a detailed and powerfully emotional look at injustice and ripples it causes in people’s lives with her four-part miniseries, When They See Us, that depicts the events of the “Central Park Five.”
Based on the true story, the series follows the real-life rape case that falsely accused, convicted and ruined the lives of five Harlem teens – Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), and Raymond Santana Jr. (Marquis Rodriguez). In 1989, a woman is found raped and beaten in Central Park after going for a jog and the police are on the hunt for answers to solve the case. This desire to solve the case leads them to bring in the five teens, based on an event from the previous night and their race, to coerce them to construct a narrative that pins the rape on them. With stories like this, it’s easy just to show the police and lawyers that are against these five teens as villains that are solely driven by hate, but that’s not completely the case here. There’s a sense of desperation that can be felt to make the case and it’s a big factor into the fear and powerlessness they instill into the five teens they “interrogate.”
Interrogate feels like a loose word when you’re watching the first episode as it almost feels like it’s ripped straight out of a horror movie with how the investigators basically force the boys to spin this narrative. The sense of fear and hopelessness that the investigators instill into each person is legitimately horrifying and sends unnerving chills throughout your entire body. From the way they make them feel safe by turning the blame onto one another, even though most of them had never met each other before this, to how they even make Antron’s father (Michael Kenneth Williams) force Antron to admit to doing something he didn’t do just so they can leave, every ounce of fear they feel and their sheer desire to be out of this nightmare and go home is incredibly relatable. There’re even times where you just wish you could literally rip them out of the situation just so their nightmare can end and it’s a testament to the incredible direction from DuVernay and the powerful performances from the main five.
Throughout the series, DuVernay creates this powerful narrative through both her direction and writing – alongside other writers Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, and Michael Starrbury. Telling a story with five main characters is no easy task, but DuVernay manages to find a great balance between telling all of their stories – except maybe Kevin. While I know that with this many main stories to tell someone is always going to get the short end of stick, Kevin’s story isn’t in the spotlight as much and even his side in the courtroom isn’t touched on much – I can’t even remember if I saw him on the stand at all. It’s one of the things, along with an arc for one of the lawyers finally speaking up, that made me wish she got one more episode to really give the full scope of everything in the first two episodes. Regardless, the amount of vivid detail and genuine emotion that booms from how DuVernay captures everything leading up to the most heartbreaking guilty verdict you’ll ever see. Viewers will be constantly hooked by each detail that comes from both how the police and investigators create the narrative of the boys’ false guilt and how they must defend against it.
The performances from the young cast are truly remarkable as well and you really find yourself latching onto their fear and desire for all of this to be over. It’s crazy to think that you go from seeing this group go from mostly not knowing each before this to having to stand alongside one another to fight for their innocence in such a short time. The entire group really sells their individual character’s personality and even their family dynamics – which are also fascinating to watch when they all get together with the lawyers to discuss how they might be able to get their boys freed. This story definitely wouldn’t have the same emotional impact without these performances and definitely wouldn’t be the same if DuVernay wasn’t behind the scenes to not only create a story about injustice inside the courtroom, but also everything after.
The last two episodes of the series are absolute masterpieces in themselves as DuVernay gives viewers a glimpse into the heartbreaking reality they face in their adult lives. From being looked at as rapists even though they didn’t do anything to the jobs they can’t and likely might never have, there’s so much heartache that’s beautifully captured. The ripples these kinds of situations are never seen like this and it’s incredible that DuVernay is able to shed light on this and make it feel incredibly real. Even the transitions between the teen versions of the five to them as adults is very haunting when you think about it because it shows the length of the group’s incarceration. Even the changes within their families are devastating to watch with Raymond (now played by Freddy Miyares) finding no work and being unable to provide for himself without turning to illegal means, Yusef (now played by Chris Chalk) and Kevin (now played by Justin Cunningham) being unable to get the help they need without admitting to a crime they didn’t do, and Antron (now played by Jovan Adepo) having a deteriorating relationship with his father as his illness slowly kills him. It’s a truth that rarely ever seen or delved into and perfectly reflects the meaning of “When They See Us.”
Nothing compares to the story told in the series’ final episode as it delves into the horrifying life that Korey has with his sentence being treated as an adult sentence. Seeing Korey go through the adult prison system is literally one of the scariest horror movies I’ve seen this year and you’re left with broken nerves with the worry of how his story would end or what would be left of him. DuVernay also takes the time to explore more of Korey’s story as he stays in isolation to stay alive. From the family issues he’s had in past with his sister Marci (Isis King) to the relationship he left behind with his girlfriend Lisa (Storm Reid), all of Korey’s emotions are completely palpable and it’s because Jerome’s performance is just plain perfect. In scenes where he’s having a heartbreaking heart to heart with his mother (Niecy Nash) or building a strong friendship with an officer (Logan Marshal-Green), it’s easy to connect to all of his emotions and it’s all because Jerome is so instrumental in depicting the emotionally draining experience he goes through.
In her efforts to shed light on injustice in America, DuVernay creates a historical masterpiece full of raw emotion that’s easily one of her best works. It’s actually crazy to me that the Golden Globes could snub something as impactful, relevant, and important as When They See Us. It’s an experience and a story that simply can’t be ignored and contains some of the powerful storytelling and performances you’ll see this year.