By now, you have either seen all or part or at least heard about the Ava Duvernay-written, created, and directed Netflix series, “When They See Us.” The four-episode mini-series tells the story of five Black New York teenage boys that were arrested and convicted of beating and raping a White woman jogger in Central Park in 1989. The filmmaker meticulously and painstakingly shows how the prosecution and the press crafted a story of young Black boys out of control on a rampage that resulted in a horrific attack. Viewers saw how the story the authorities constructed ended up in convictions despite the fact the evidence did not support the young men’s guilt. For years the boys (and later men) were referred to as “The Central Park 5.” Even the now-President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, weighed in on what should happen to them back in 1989. He took out an almost $60,000 full-page ad in the New York Times calling for bringing back the death penalty so it could be applied to the boys.
All of the juveniles were convicted spending between 5 and a half and 12 years in prison. The 16-year-old, Korey Wise, was sent to adult prison where he was violently abused and assaulted. The story of what these boys and their families suffered is hard to watch. Many people I know say they could not finish watching the series or that they would not watch it at all. People talk about how angry and upset they got while watching it.
All of this is understandable but I want to address some other issues the mini-series brings up that also make us uncomfortable. 1. Far too many of us (Black people) were complicit in accusing the teenagers. Instead of hearing their stories most of us had the incident interpreted through the lens of mainstream media. In fact, the media even gave us a word that we accepted—“wilding”—as a way to describe the boys’ presumed behaviors.
2. The interest convergence between the wealth and power of White men (e.g. Donald Trump) and the defense of White womanhood was unsettling. I want to be clear I am in no way suggesting that the jogger was not victimized. She was, and any human being can sympathize with the brutal assault she suffered. But to see the way White male power and White womanhood aligns against blackness reminds me as to why 51 percent of White women voted for Donald Trump.
3. The parents’ (and most Black people’s) total ignorance of the way the justice system systematically works against us was made evident in the mini-series. The system turned these boys into men—scary Black men. Not understanding or being able to exercise their Constitutional rights meant that the families felt defeated from the very beginning. They hired people who were lawyers but not all were criminal defense lawyers. From the very beginning, the boys were at a severe disadvantage.
4. No one was telling the boys’ story. The prosecutors, the press, and the public were all telling a story about the boys, that was a web of lies. The voices of the boys and their parents were silenced. This is the power and beauty of Duvernay’s filmmaking. She inverts the gaze and instead of looking at the boys as soulless, violent criminals we get to see their humanity at the same time we see the forces arrayed against them. We see how racism works, not just as individual people’s prejudices but as an entire system against which few people can stand. Duvernay was deliberate in not calling the boys (and now men), “The Central Park Five.” That identity continues to tie them to “wilding” and being a “wolf pack” as portrayed by the media. No, Duvernay made a point of saying, “When they see us” …they see something altogether different. They get to see us as human beings.
Learning to tell our own stories is one of the most powerful things we can do. If you have visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., you know it moves you because it tells our story from our perspective. It does not start our story in slavery and it does not represent us as disempowered, weak, impotent people. The most common statement that Whites who visit the museum is, “I had no idea!” And they had no idea because before this museum they rarely got to hear our story told by us.
The next time a Black person is unfairly accused of a crime or abused by law enforcement or even singled out for just living while Black (e.g. having a barbeque, selling bottled water, going to a swimming pool, etc.) we have to make sure we get to hear their stories from their perspective. Now we have to make sure that they both see us and hear us!