Better Late Than Never: When They See Us
There are some series I just don’t have the time for, and that’s just as true for Limited Series. When They See Us debuted on the cusp of Emmy eligibility, and immediately received ecstatic notices for every element — Ava Duvernay’s writing and direction, the superb cast, and dealing with a subject that we really wish would come up less. But just as I misjudged Godless’ eligibility for the Emmys last year because it was on Netflix, I did the same for When They See Us. In addition, there was way too many great Limited Series this years for me to think it would make it through. Then the Emmy nods came out last week, and it got sixteen, beating out True Detective and Very English Scandal for Best Limited Series. Given the fact that I had seen the other four nominated series, I decided to try and complete the set. I’d say I’m glad I did, but this is one of those series where saying ‘glad’ makes you want to rethink the adjective.
(Since this is a four-part limited series, I will do two reviews: one of the first episode where I give my initial impression, and one where I judge the work as an entirety.)
As the entire world knows, When They See Us deals with the story of the Central Park Five: five young African-American teenagers who were falsely accused of raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989, were forced into confessing, were falsely convicted, and spent more than a decade in prison before they were finally exonerated in 2002. The case would become a flashpoint for how the criminal justice system worked against black defendants and in particular, how the NYPD and the District Attorneys office was willing to manipulate the truth in order to get a conviction.
The first episode deals with the process that got the five boys — and that’s what they were, boys — arrested in the first place. We meet all five of them in momentary flashes. (All of the five are played by two different actors throughout the series, with the exception of Jharrel Jerome, who plays Korey Wise, and serves as the lead.) It is clear from the moment we meet them that they are innocent children whose only crime was to get caught up in a lot of activity in the Park around the time the victim was being raped. They are picked up by the police for disturbing the peace and with the exception of Korey and Raymond Santana, most are released. Santana was held because his father (played by John Leguizamo in one of his strongest performances ever) couldn’t get off work, and couldn’t stay for him. Korey’s mother (the flawless Niecy Nash) spent hours going from station to station looking for her son.
From the start, its very clear that this there is no real evidence for what is about to unfold. The lead detective, Linda Faristein (Felicity Huffman, who despite all the scandal, demonstrates that she is still a great actress) seizes upon the boys almost instinctively because they are young and black. The cops don’t even hesitate in overusing their authority to grab them off the street. And from the start, they begin browbeating these innocent children into saying things that are clearly false, and when the facts don’t fit the story, they rearrange the facts. And when the prosecutor (Vera Farmiga) tells them that she doesn’t want to go the court with a shitty case, they begin to openly beat No one says they’re being blamed because their black and the cops are white, but they all know it. One of the fathers (the peerless Michael K. Williams) is manipulated by the cops because of his record, and then tells his son, who he knows is innocent, that he has to confess :”Because that’s what the police do to us.”
I’m not going to lie to you. When They See Us is a hard series to watch. It’s emotionally raw, and seeing the open racism and disdain cops have their subjects is really painful, and that’s before you take into consideration how far we haven’t come in thirty years. (When one of the mother’s mentions to Fairstein that she’s been interrogating a fifteen year old boy, Fairstein just says: “Do you have his birth certificate? Considering how this case was critical in our current president’s history, its not subtle.) I was constantly reminded of American Crime, a series which constantly demonstrated how horrible our justice system was when it came to dealing with the underserved, and its rawness no doubt stopped viewers from embracing its greatness. No one on this planet is going to be able to see this series and feel anything but pain. Which is also the reason everyone should see it. I don’t expect it to bingeworthy, but its definitely appointment television.
My score: 4.75 stars.