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Netflix’s “When They See Us” (Review)

April 19, 1989. A White woman was brutally raped, beaten, and left for dead in Central Park, New York City. At the same time, thirty African-American and Latino young men committed acts of vandalism. Five innocent Black and Latino teenagers were subsequently arrested and charged for the attempted murder and rape of the White woman and convicted for a crime they did not commit. This is a story of judicial racism and abuse. Antron McCray (15), Kevin Richardson (14), Yusef Salaam (15), Raymond Santana (14), and Korey Wise (16) did not know it then, but their lives would change forever. 

Thirty years later, in 2019, Netflix translated this real-life story into a series called “When They See Us”, where the judicial mistakes of The Central Park Five case are shown in crude detail. It’s the most eye-opening series I have ever seen. The rawness with which it shows what happened to these five teenagers is impressive, with every scene giving the viewers chills in a breathtaking cinematographic work by director Ava DuVernay. The series is composed of four episodes of an hour each. 

“When They See Us” provides a background of the teenagers’ lives that explains how they were so miserably failed by the justice system. It was the 90s, in the US, and the young men were four African-Americans and one Latino from low and middle-class families who would often skip school. Their skin color already made them an easy target in the eyes of the racist and poor American justice system. 

This is known as the myth of Black criminality in America; the simple existence of Black men in the US, perceived by many Whites as “the Bestial Black Man”. It is the conviction that the Black man is criminal in nature, animalistic, and sexually predatory. The result of this is the irrational fear that Black men would rape White women whenever possible. When these five Black and Latino teenagers were in the wrong place at the wrong time, they immediately fit into this predetermined profile. 

The series shows how punitive populism played a crucial role. Punitive populism is an ideological and manipulative strategy used by the State to exploit collective insecurities, in this case, the myth of Black criminality in the US, by restricting fundamental freedoms. Society demands more severe policies for criminals, specifically incarceration, and criminal authorities respond with increasingly harsh punishments, regardless of their ability to reduce crimes or redress its known correlates. In the Central Park Five case, society wanted a culpable person convicted and the police gave it to them. But the rush to find a responsible person was a breeding ground for the racism of American police, who chose the guilty persons based on their prejudices. 


What I also found really interesting and smart was how accurately “When They See Us” shows the media coverage of the case. The influence of the media was evident from the beginning because the five teenagers were portrayed as criminals, almost sentencing them as guilty in the eyes of popular opinion. The series demonstrates to the viewer how the monstrous image of the teenagers was constructed by the media in newspapers, radio, and television. For instance, in certain scenes White journalists ceaselessly dehumanized them publicly by referring to them as “savage”, “wolf-pack”, “herd”, “wilding”, “gangs”. 

How the series depicts the repression that the victims were subjected to left me speechless. It shocks the viewers but helps them empathize with the police abuse they suffered. The interrogation scenes are extremely hard to watch because they manage to make you feel impotence and frustration as if you were living it in your own skin. The camera composition and visuals wisely use cold colors and chilling lighting which transmit the harshness of the story. 

The most remarkable thing about “When They See Us” is the outstanding talent of young actors Jharrel Jerome, Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, and Marquis Rodríguez. Their acting was fascinating. They brilliantly portrayed helplessness and desperation in heartbreaking scenes. Especially Jharrel Jerome, who played Korey Wise, the one who spent the most time in prison. Jerome’s acting did not go unnoticed and in 2019 he won a much-deserved Emmy for Lead Actor In A Limited Series Or Movie.

Jharrel Jerome’s acting of Korey Wise. Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

“When They See Us” is an astonishing series about the racial biases of the American police. It shows that in theory, we are all the same under the law, but in practice, there are first and second-class citizens that are not treated equally. The series sheds light on the still-existing issue of racism and violation of human rights during judicial processes. It represents the contrast in behavior and judgments towards the privileged; White, educated, middle-upper-class with good job positions, and the unprivileged; Black, with lower educational levels, lower-middle-class persons. 

For me, it was one of the toughest series to watch, but it is definitely worth it because of the important life lesson that it gives you. I strongly recommend the show to everyone. It provokes a huge reflection that makes you reconsider how unfair and cruel society can be, and how we must avoid injustices like this to continue happening to innocent people because of racism. We can’t give the five innocent men the years they lost back or make up for the emotional pain they suffered. But we can continue to raise awareness about wrongful convictions and racial biases in criminal cases by educating ourselves through series like “When They See Us”.