If the heart-rending saga of the Central Park Five didn’t exist, Dick Wolf would have had to invent it. After all, the case of five black and Latino teenagers wrongly convicted of raping and beating a white woman is exactly the kind of thorny, politically fraught story on which Wolf’s iconic Law & Order franchise was built. Even three decades after the attack and its aftermath, it’s not uncommon to hear a Special Victims Unit detective make a sidelong reference to the case or the many lessons it imparted. From the risks of coercive interrogation to the dangers of a ravenous media response, the Central Park Five have served as a totem for systemic failure long after their official exoneration.
Director Ava DuVernay isn’t content for the story of the Central Park Five to exist as a law enforcement case study, or for the public to only know the men by their reductive sobriquet. When They See Us, DuVernay’s furious and infuriating four-part Netflix series, maintains a disciplined focus on the men involved, showing how their lives and communities suffered irreparable damage as a result of their incarceration after confessing under extreme duress. The ground-level approach lies in stark contrast with that of co-director Ken Burns’ non-fiction take on the same material, which concerns itself more with the procedural errors and how growing anxiety about metropolitan crime created a bloodthirsty mob.
Those elements of the story are well-represented in DuVernay’s scripted version, but only as much as they’re required to recount the awful facts. One night, in April of 1989, five Harlem boys—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—literally fall in with a bad crowd. Each kid follows a large, disparate group of young black men into Central Park, only to watch in horror as the mob’s idle hands make fists and pummel random passersby. The police arrive to stop the crowd from escalating its violent behavior, and the five boys who eventually take the fall get swept up in the NYPD’s broad net. Unbeknownst to the boys, who were mostly strangers prior to that night, a 28-year-old jogger had been dragged off a Central Park trail, raped, and beaten within inches of her life.
The jogger’s attack doesn’t seem to fit with the other crimes, in terms of time, space, and physical evidence, and the boys are initially confused when their interrogations turn toward a rape they know nothing about. But that doesn’t stop city prosecutor Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) from prodding detectives to garner confessions by any means necessary, with widespread public outrage curdling into top-down political pressure and an entire city demanding swift justice. That includes pressure from a certain real estate developer who once seemed most likely to inspire the main antagonist in a next-gen Leisure Suit Larry game, but instead became the de facto leader of the free world. The limited series isn’t bashful about calling out the president by name and highlighting how his public push for hang-’em-high justice then is reflected in his policies toward black and brown people now.
The first episode is hardest to watch because it shows in harrowing detail the circumstances that would lead anyone, especially a minor, to admit involvement in a violent crime. It’s one thing to hear a voice in a documentary recalling a 30-hour interrogation without food or sleep, outside the presence of parents or legal representation and often augmented with physical abuse or the threat thereof. But it’s entirely different to watch those events dramatized, to see the terror and confusion of the situation acted by newcomer Asante Blackk, who plays Richardson and distinguishes himself among a cast of ringers. Blackk is puberty personified, with the face of a ceramic cherub and an impossibly mannish voice, making him the best vessel for a story about kids forced into adulthood by their circumstances.
After the initial arrests, DuVernay focuses on each phase of the boy’s experiences coming of age in the criminal justice system, returning to territory she previously explored in her mass incarceration documentary 13th. Each episode makes increasingly obvious that if DuVernay could have communicated more using only tight close-ups of the core actors, she would have done so. The four-episode structure and the tight focus on the boys works well for the story, but frequently means the impressive ensemble cast flits in and out before they’re able to make a real impression. Blair Underwood and Joshua Jackson, to name two, show up as part of the boys’ ragtag legal team, but they don’t have much to chew on, which is probably for the best considering how little impact they ultimately had on their clients’ fates.
That’s certainly not the case for Jharrel Jerome, best known for his role in Moonlight, who gets the biggest spotlight here as Wise, whose arc represents the cruelest twist in a plot full of them. Jerome is the only actor to portray his character as a child and as an adult, and the feature-length final installment is almost entirely a showcase for his performance. As handsome and well-rendered as When They See Us is, the nature of the story makes the show taste like medicine, and one could be forgiven for stopping after the first episode on account of sheer emotional exhaustion. But if there was a single episode to watch, it would be the last one, which portrays Wise’s horrifying journey as the only one of the five boys to be sent to an adult prison. Jerome’s performance is absolutely stunning and richly detailed, down to his choice to replicate Wise’s clenched oral posture.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel, of course, the mostly post-scripted vindication of the men after the actual culprit came forward and DNA evidence exculpated Wise, McCray, Richardson, Salaam, and Santana, leading to a multi-million dollar settlement from the city. But man, it’s a hell of a tunnel. When They See Us is DuVernay at her best: urgent, unflinching, and political. But like 13th before it, it’s a gutting viewing experience, one that probably benefits from binge-viewing, but makes doing so nearly impossible.