Being black, an identity I wouldn’t trade for the world itself, means many things. But one thing every black person who is aware that blackness changes the way the world treats you can agree on is the constant exhaustion. Our existence, as vibrant and as beautiful as it is, is unfortunately just so tiring. And as tiring as it is to have to relive it through this series, Ava DuVernay is a filmmaker that is more than committed to shining light on what we have had to endure at the hands of those sworn to protect us.
She became the first black woman to ever be nominated for an Academy Award in the ‘Best Director’ category for ‘Selma’. She then went on to direct, write and produce the award-winning documentary ‘13th’, a piece of work that became the catalyst for many conversations surrounding the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement following the murder of Trayvon Martin. Ava has never shied away from exposing the truth on how African Americans have had to suffer at the hands of the law; doing so with the deeply personal and sincere tone in her documentary-style story telling.
‘When They See Us’ is a docuseries about the false accusation and sentencing of Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana Jr., Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam for the rape and attempted murder of Patricia Meili in Central Park, New York on the 19th of April 1989. The series follows the events that lead to their arrest, sentencing and lives after they each served 6 to 14 years in prison; Korey Wise serving the longest sentence of the 5 as he was aged 16 at the time of the incident. Korey wasn’t initially brought in for questioning. He voluntarily followed Yusef to the station to make sure nothing bad happened to him and then falls asleep, not noticing Yusef’s mother leave with her son, only to be slapped awake by a detective and forced to confess to the crime in exchange for being allowed to leave. Yeah. I know.
Although there are many things that were simply exceptional about this docuseries, I thought it best to bring attention to 5 moments in particular that stood out to me and drove home what Ava so brilliantly managed to make about the irreparably strained relationship people of colour have with law enforcement.
1. “Out ‘wilding’ with Tron?”
When Linda Fairstein (NYPD’s lead sex-crime prosecutor at the time) looks over initial notes made by the police who discover Patricia’s body she reads how one of the boys said they were just “wilding in the park” and asks the detective who wrote the notes what it meant, to which he shrugs and said he doesn’t know. Linda later on speaks to one of the 30 boys apprehended by the police (played by Brett Gray from ‘On My Block’) who admits to being Antron’s friend to which she questions if he was, “Out wilding with Tron?” eliciting a confused frown from the boy.
Episode two opens with a montage of media commentary on the ongoing case, during which a news reporter says the police described the boys’ behaviour in the park as “wilding”, which the NYPD has now defined as being “new teenage slang for rampaging in wolf packs.” When I heard this, for the umpteenth time during the series; my heart fell. The media’s ability to weaponise anything and everything, including colloquialisms, in order to paint the animalistic picture of the black man, is second to none.
Buzz words like wilding, ghetto, fatherless and thug are carelessly thrown around by several news outlets before these boys had even seen a day in court. Their upbringing and environment, which was fostered by the systematic oppression is suddenly flipped on its head and used to create personas for these children to make them seem capable of this heinous crime. The innocence that we see so freely awarded to white terrorists under the guise of mental health issues was immediately stripped away from these boys before they themselves even knew the details of the crime they were being accused of.
2. “Tell them what they want to hear son”
At the beginning of the series we see Antron and his father Bobby McCray have the standard father-son debate about sport during a meal. The conversation is about baseball specifically, which we later learn is the sport Antron hoped to play in the future. Their interaction was light and playful but still filled with the typical firm and no-nonsense tone most good fathers are well known for. Antron loves and more importantly respects his father and they managed to use this against him too.
During Antron’s questioning, once the word ‘rape’ is mentioned tensions in the room shoot through the roof and his mother begins to beg for them to stop harassing her son whilst we watch sheer panic fill Antron’s eyes. The police escort his mother out of the room for the remainder of her child’s interrogation. His father however stays put and attempts to bargain with one of the detectives in private, emphasising that he knows his son couldn’t have possibly done this. The detective responds by asking him if his current employers are aware that he has a criminal record and we watch Bobby cower immediately. Next thing you know he’s back in the room ordering his son to say whatever they want him to say so they can leave. Antron protests but his dad just gets louder. And like any son who believes his father knows better, he listens.
The statistics of employment for black men with criminal records are abysmal. The cycle is a ridiculously well-oiled machine. Minimal access to education – no employment without education – resorting to crime in order to survive – arrest – harsher sentencing because of race - no employment with a criminal record – repeat. The only way this man was able to put food on the table for his family was to lie about his record, which they then used in blackmailing him in order to criminalise his son. Antron grows to resent his father for what he did as well as for abandoning himself and his mother during the trial, understandably so. But the fear Antron felt in that interrogation room was the same fear that drove his father to do something that in retrospect doesn’t make any sense. Bobby’s freedom was dangled in front of his eyes in exchange for his son’s. As if it was theirs to take in the first place.
3. “Where’s the line for Patricia?”
The NYPD find a sock full of semen at the crime scene, which did not match the DNA of any of the 5 boys. In fact there was literally not a single shred of DNA evidence that placed any of these boys near the crime scene, let alone on the actual victim herself. Yeah. I know.
The lead prosecutor on the case, Elizabeth Lederer, expressed her reservations to Linda Fairstein about convicting these boys because of how little evidence they had to support the case. Fairstein essentially tells Lederer to not bring up the sock in court despite it not being a match to the people they were accusing of the crime. Lederer states that she believed they would be crossing a line by omitting this information, which is later on brought to light in court anyway. Fairstein responds by asking her where the line is for Patricia, making it clear that justice for Patricia was all she wanted. Being a sex-crime prosecutor at a time when prosecuting sex crimes was virtually impossible must have fuelled Fairstein’s irrational desire to see these boys sentenced despite there being no evidence to support her accusations. That along with the fact that Patricia Meili is a white woman.
Don’t get me wrong, what happened to this woman deserves the hottest room hell has to offer regardless of the race of anyone involved, both victim and perpetrator. However, it is alarming how quickly Fairstein’s passion for the case grew upon discovery that the boys in the park were all black or Latin. Furthermore, it was extremely alarming how much everybody suddenly cared about sexual assault in New York despite there being over 3000 reported cases of rape in the year prior.
The truth of the matter is, Patricia’s case would have probably gone unsolved if those boys weren’t in the park that day. Patricia’s case would have probably gone unsolved if those boys in the park weren’t black. And if we are being honest, Patricia’s case would have probably gone un-investigated in the first place if she herself was black. I wonder if Linda Fairstein would have guarded Patricia’s ‘line’ over the lives of these five black boys as fervently as she did had she been any other race.
In 2002, a convicted serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to the rape and assault of Patricia Meili recalling details about the incident that were corroborated with evidence found at the crime scene. His DNA matched the semen found in the sock.
4. “Nobody gives a fuck about me”
The most notable thing about this series for me was Jharell Jerome’s (also plays Kevin in Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight) performance as Korey Wise. Outstanding doesn’t even begin to cover the level of skill Jharell moves with throughout this role. Being the only actor to play their character both as a child and as an adult, Ava gave him the time and room to show the audience exactly what he’s made of. Jharell effortlessly navigates his way emotionally and physically from the confused child who was skipping school simply because of a learning disability to a weary man who had suffered the worst hand the justice system could have possibly dealt one person. During his trial, we learn that at 16 years old, Korey is in fact unable to read to the statement of confession he allegedly wrote and signed. Yeah. I know.
When his learning disability is brought to attention in court, Lederer immediately changes her approach and uses his lack of attendance in school to paint an even bigger picture of his supposed delinquency to the jury, and they eat it up. Somehow deciding that a child who was beaten prior to confession and then coerced into signing a document he couldn’t even read, was most definitely as guilty as they come.
His age lands him in a maximum security prison as opposed to the juvenile detention centres the other boys were sent to and with adult prison comes adult treatment. We watch him be brutally attacked on multiple occasions by fellow inmates for being “the guy who raped the white lady”, so much so that he requests to be put in solitary confinement for most of his time in prison.
During his time in solitary he frequently hallucinates conversations with his transgender sister Marci, born Norman Wise, as well as a flashback to a day where she catches him skipping school. As they walk down the street we see strangers throw the word ‘f*ggot’ her way which she shrugs off causing a confused Korey to ask why they look at her like that. She simply responds, “they’re blind to beauty, baby boy”. Moments later Korey is taken to see the chaplain who informs him that his sister has been murdered followed by a flashback to the last time Korey saw her during which we learn that their mother had kicked Marci out for presenting as a woman.
To Korey’s knowledge, Marci was the last person alive who cared about him. Although he hadn’t seen her since he was a child, her memory was what kept him going at his lowest. The news of her death propelled one of the most heart breaking scenes in the series during which Korey repeatedly states how “nobody gives a fuck about (me) him” whilst the guard embraces him through his tears. Said guard then begins to bring Korey books, cards and various gifts whenever he can fondly calling him ‘kid’, which Korey says he likes because guess what? Korey is a kid. These were the only acts of kindness Korey was ever shown by any member of law enforcement in the entirety of the series. The US has already seen the murder of (at least) 7 transgender women in 2019 alone. All of which were black. All.
5. “His 15 minutes are almost up”
During their trial we hear through the media that Donald Trump had spent $85,000 of his own money to buy advertisements on major newspapers requesting for the death penalty to be reinstated in light of Patricia’s case.
Yusef’s mother frustratingly says she wishes they would shut him up to and her friend tells her not to worry because, “his 15 minutes are almost up.” Exactly 30 years later, that man is now the leader of the United States of America. In 2016, a man who publicly asked for five children to be sentenced to death for a crime they are all more innocent of than he likely is, was able to run for office and actually win? Yeah. I know.
As a black person if you choose to watch this documentary, in the words of the director herself, do so at your own pace because this one really hurts. Ava DuVernay made sure of that.