Fri. Jul 10th, 2020

TV Review: Netflix’s ‘When They See Us’ is a career-defining work from Ava DuVernay

Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise in Netflix’s When They See Us (Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix)

Ava DuVernay has given us the most vital examination of the downward effects of systematic oppression to African-Americans since Roots

1989 was a culturally and politically seismic year. It was the year of Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin wall. Iran-Contra. San Francisco’s deadliest earthquake in eight decades. The Exxon Valdez disaster. Do the Right Thing vs Driving Miss Daisy. But another news story captured the nation that year like none other, the case known as The Central Park Five.   

But they have names: Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr., Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise.

DuVernay’s four-part series begins with dozens of boys heading into Central Park. The young versions of the five are played by Asante Blackk (young Kevin), Caleel Harris (young Antron), Ethan Herisse (young Yusef), Marquis Rodriguez (young Raymond), Jharrel Jerome (young Korey). Jerome also plays the adult version of Korey, but more on him later. The immediate feel of this mid-spring revelry of young men and boys is quickly interrupted when, as virtually any young African-American male in the United States can tell you, when a description of a young black male is given to the police, everyone is a suspect. Boys are rounded up, having no knowledge of the horrible rape and beating of jogger Trisha Meili that happened that same night and the lives of these five boys is about to be forever changed.

With haste and extreme prejudice, the police brutally interrogate the boys, without a parent or lawyer present, and DuVernay doesn’t shy away from the horror of the brutality, no more than she did in her Oscar-nominated documentary 13TH, her in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality. Lenser Bradford Young (Arrival, Solo: A Star Wars Story) doesn’t either, pushing the camera in closer and closer, confining the boys in their fear. In softer moments, he gorgeously frames the young men in mid-range close-ups that would be right at home in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight or If Beale Street Could Talk. The score by Kris Bowers (Green Book, Netflix’s Dear White People) is masterful in its combination of urgency and elegance. The performances by Blackk, Harris, Herisse and Rodriquez in the early episodes are all uniformly excellent.

Manhattan D.A. sex crimes investigator Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman, looking eerily like Kellyanne Conway) labels the boys as “animals” and begins the narrative that will become unescapable. Vera Farmiga (in a Marcia Clark fright perm wig) plays prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer. In a meeting, Fairstein frames the case as one solely of justice for Trisha, regardless of guilt or innocence of the boys. “The whole country is watching,” she says, “This is your opportunity, do it for her.” It’s a false feminism fake out but it sways Lederer nonetheless and the avarice with which she goes after the boys in court is rabid. In a different story, this case would have been told from this perspective, and thank goodness it’s not.

We know the details of the case, it’s been 30 years. What DuVernay gives us is the real and lasting impact on Kevin, Antron, Yuself, Raymond and Korey and their families. The tears at the family fabric that years of imprisonment and isolation corrupts their innocence with. Raymond moves back with his cuckold father (a mannered John Leguizamo), who has a new girlfriend (Dascha Polanco) and new baby in a house full of distrust. Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire) is a standout as Kevin’s father, who, like his son, is heavily coerced and threatened by the police into making his son confess. Marsha Stephanie Blake and Aunjanue Ellis provide strong support. Niecy Nash, mostly known for her comic work in Reno 911, Getting On and Claws, is a barn-burner here, thrusting her dramatic muscles with a small but richly layered performance. A scene with Korey and his trans sister is a complex, stunning piece of acting.

A pre-president Donald Trump factors heavily in episode two. Even with dialogue that’s a bit on the nose (“His 15 minutes are almost up, don’t worry about it”) it doesn’t lessen the impact that the real estate mogul had on this case – running full-page ads (at a cost of $85K) insisting on the boys’ guilt and demanding the return of the death penalty. Even after the boys were exonerated and after all of these years, he still maintains his belief in the boys’ guilt. DuVernay pushes the knife in deeper with her evisceration, and foreshadowing of, the landscape of future news coverage. “We’re not here for stories, we’re here for facts,” a protester tells a Fox News reporter. “Can they say that on the news and say it’s the truth?” cries one of the boys’ parents.

But it’s Jharrel Jerome playing Korey (the only actor to play both versions of his young and adult self), who not only gives the best performance in the series, but the best performance of the year. He is unmatched and without peer as his Korey goes from a slow, but helpful friend (he merely agreed to go to the station with his friend and ended up spending more time in prison than all of them) to protecting himself by sticking to solitary confinement, moving from prison to prison, finding few allies save one white guard (played by Logan Marshall Green) and hardening a man in a way that only serving time can. Korey withstands savage beatings, but maintains his dignity at all costs. Jerome gave us a glimpse into his potential with Moonlight but with When They See Us he shows he has arrived as one of his generation’s most important actors.

There is nothing more poignant than imagining a life that could have been and DuVernay gives Korey a moment of visiting Coney Island with the girl he was beginning to date (A Wrinkle In Time’s Storm Reid). It gives him, and the audience, a moment of reprieve from the brutality and sadness of his reality only to be jerked back into a 10×10 cell. It’s devastating.

But this is not an isolated story. This isn’t something we can look back on and be glad we’ve moved past. If anything, violence, prosecution and persecution against young black men has gotten worse and the rise of white nationalism is bolstering it. I often see (white) people shocked when they hear of yet another black man shot and killed by police and exclaim,  “This isn’t the country I know!” Except it was and it is; this is America.

Netflix will release the four-part series When They See Us on May 31st.

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