The case brings back the poisonous zeitgeist of late-1980s New York, where a new über class of wealthy young Wall Streeters disported itself amid the wreckage of a crack-cocaine epidemic among the city’s underclass. Violent crime reached levels unimaginable today (the city suffered 2,250 murders in 1990; twenty-five years later, just 330); looking back in 2002, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert described “a city soaked in the blood of crime victims.... [where] rapists, muggers and other violent criminals seemed to roam at will.” The Central Park jogger attack brought to the surface a latent social narrative among the city’s dominant classes—that of wild young black men preying on white people—and energized whites to vehement outbursts of self-righteous race anger. “This was a proxy war,” New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer recalled years afterward. In that war, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—who ranged in age from fourteen to sixteen—didn’t stand a chance.
With a few important differences (more on that shortly), DuVernay follows in the steps of the 2013 Ken and Sarah Burns documentary, The Central Park Five. But fictionalization allows her to deepen the portrayal of the characters and their families, adding immensely to the story’s power. When They See Us informs, challenges, and moves a viewer in equal measure, capturing the nuances of the human story even as it lodges a pointed political critique of race and the justice system. It isn’t easy to be forcefully accusatory without sentimentalizing. This is the rare work whose beauty arises from focused moral anger.
Central is the question of perspective: Whose lens will be used to view these events, whose viewpoint privileged? Who is seeing—and characterizing—whom? Putting forth a belated counter-narrative to the dominant (white) narrative that proved so damning in 1989, Part One quickly establishes the routine innocence of the boys, their preoccupation with sports and girls and clothes. DuVernay is similarly at pains to reinscribe “wilding” as an innocent term: “They probably just wilding out,” says one of the boys, as a group of laughing kids rushes by. Does wilding involve some aggressiveness? Yes, and DuVernay portrays it: the badgering of two bike riders in the park; the unprovoked pummeling of a white guy. But such incidents are far from a brutal rape; and in any case, none of the five boys ultimately charged with the rape did any of the aggressive wilding, either.
The early scenes, which show us each boy in his own individual life, take a trope of disaster films—who happens to get on the plane, and who doesn’t?—and deploy it to profound dramatic effect. We see Korey flirting with his girlfriend at a fast-food restaurant as his friend Yusef, heading for the park, stops and pounds on the window, urging him to follow. Korey’s girlfriend tries to persuade him to stay. He hesitates, then leaves; he gets on the plane, a moment of destiny that will be revisited with excruciating regret later on. The get-on-the-plane trope cannily configures what is about to happen as a kind of calamity, a random disaster for which the boys are hardly more to blame than a passenger on a doomed aircraft would be.
Yet that calamity is no act of God, but a creation of human attitudes. As Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman), the Manhattan DA’s lead prosecutor on the case, struggles to whip events into shape in her mind, we see a blatantly faulty syllogism emerge: a brutal attack happened in the park; these black male teens were in the park; therefore, these black kids committed the brutal attack. That’s a logical fallacy a ten-year-old could see through, right? Wrong. What’s missing is the underlying assumption supplied by racial bias: that these young black men are the type to do this; that they were up to no good. And so the presumption of innocence is vaporized by the hot glare of racism.
When They See Us delivers a lesson in the mechanics—the linguistics, really—of dehumanization, whereby groups in power marginalize others through invidious language. Police, prosecutors, and the press refer to “these animals” who “rampaged” and “terrorized,” a “wild pack,” all pitted against—as Fairstein puts it—“our lady jogger.” (Such language sprang up among whites irrespective of political orientation; the liberal New York Times, in an editorial, referred to the accused boys as “a savage wolf pack.”) No one would want to minimize the suffering of the victim, a young investment banker named Trisha Meili (and one of the many hard-to-watch scenes in this series is her halting, limping, and profoundly damaged appearance at the trial). But DuVernay makes crystal-clear how her suffering was exploited and wielded to preempt any fair inquiry into whether these boys did it.
The interrogations of the boys—in which they are relentlessly browbeaten and at times physically beaten—raise the question: What did the cops think they were doing when they extorted these confessions? Did they believe these kids committed the crime? Or did they think it didn’t matter? In other words, was the calamity a matter of cynical villainy, or merely grotesque error? Dwyer, in an otherwise approving review of the series, points to what he views as significant simplifications in its depiction of the investigation. Citing “bungling by the authorities,” he notes that while the boys’ confessions didn’t align with the actual details of the assault on the jogger,
the police and prosecutors are portrayed as immediately aware of these discrepancies. That is false. Chaos does not get its due.... The tunnel vision that took over the investigators is rendered solely as amoral ambition, but the reality of error in the Central Park case, as in most everything, is more interesting and nuanced than cartoon villainy.
There’s been much coverage of the belated pushback currently aimed at Linda Fairstein, who vehemently disputes the show’s villainous portrayal of her and accuses DuVernay of “misrepresenting the facts in an inflammatory and inaccurate manner.” The writers of a recent New York Times article assert, like Dwyer, that the script “took liberties” with its depiction of the investigation. And the Ken Burns documentary suggested that apart from a few detectives so fanatically bent on conviction that they didn’t care about actual innocence or guilt, most of the white people involved—prosecutors, press, outraged citizens—honestly believed the five were guilty.
For white liberal viewers, these questions of individual intent may loom as central; only by understanding intent, many will insist, can we assess the complicity of those who rammed through the confessions and convictions in the case. This issue may matter less to viewers of color. One stinging question that the current discourse on race has put in the face of white liberals is: Who cares about your intentions, given the fact of systemic racism? A white progressive’s idea of himself, in this view, is a kind of epiphenomenon, a squiggly decoration prettifying a rotten cake. And to be sure, a minute sifting of the intentions of those who helped engineer false verdicts is likely to seem less than crucial to someone serving a sentence for a crime he didn’t commit.
In the end, it may be a distinction without a difference, given the ugly reality of the mass racial groupthink that determined the case’s outcome. Like the Ken Burns documentary, When They See Us is a study in what cognitive psychologists call confirmation bias. As long as you assume the five must be guilty, their confessions seem damning; assume, however, that they might well not be guilty, and suddenly all sorts of flaws and contradictions appear. The problem was that no one who mattered in the Central Park case—in either the justice system or among politicians and the press—made this key assumption. Indeed, even when a convicted rapist stepped forward, years later, and confessed to the crime (a confession confirmed by DNA), many investigators refused to back down. And in 2002, when Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau, acknowledging “troubling discrepancies” in the original confessions, let the convictions be vacated, he was reviled by many. (When I interviewed Morgenthau in 2013 for a magazine profile, he called this case the low point of his nearly seventy-year career in law.)