Television Review: When They See Us

I heard good things about When They See Us as soon as it was released on Netflix. A dramatized retelling of the Central Park Five rape case in the 80s that has since gone on to garner 12 Emmy nominations. It went straight to the top of my “Watch Next” list, and I finished the mini-series last week.

As expected, it’s an absolutely brutal experience. If you’re not aware of what went on in the case, it was focused around the rape of a jogger in New York City. The night she was raped, a large group of boys had been in the area, assaulting several other people. Police rounded up who they could, and five of those boys (four 15 year olds and a 16 year old) eventually ended up being accused and convicted of the rape, primarily based on them admitting to the act on camera in taped confessions. Years later, another man came forward and confessed to the crime. He was a serial rapist who’d been active in NYC at that time, and DNA evidence proved he committed the crime. The 5 boys were exonerated, though some still believe they were part of the assault of the woman.

So this is not exactly material that’s going to leave you feeling uplifted and happy. But I think it’s important to watch. It reminded me in many ways of The Wire. (As a heads up, it’s TV-MA, largely for language.) But the problem with a work like this is that it’s so hard to use it as fodder to get any real change implemented, and that’s even more depressing.

Any time you’re dealing with “facts,” people want to come out and dispute the facts. Ave DuVernay’s depiction of this historical event leaves little in the way of justification for the police. Taken at face value, it’s clear these 5 boys were wrongly accused, and that what happened to them was a travesty of justice. The people involved in those false convictions are monstrous for what they did to those boys. But of course, the people involved then say the depiction wasn’t accurate, and that key pieces of evidence were left out of the mini-series to make it all seem more cut and dried. It reminds me of the Making a Murder show that came out a while ago.

I was not present at the scene of the crime. I can’t say definitively what happened and what didn’t happen, and at this point in time, there’s nothing that can really be done to solve the past in this instance. NYC paid over $40 million to settle a case against it by the 5, though naturally some say that shouldn’t have happened. That they were guilty and remain guilty.

But to me, the longer this remains focused on finding out “exactly what happened” in this particular case, the bigger chance there is that things similar to what is depicted in the mini-series continue to happen. Do police beat false confessions out of suspects? I cannot imagine that they don’t. This isn’t because I don’t trust police officers. It’s because I recognize that any system as large as the American criminal justice system is inevitably going to have problems. Just as I know and respect many doctors, I still recognize the fact that doctors will make mistakes. They will misdiagnose. Wrong limbs will be amputated. Massive blunders happen. Our goal should always be 100% accuracy, but anyone who thinks we’re already there in any area is delusional.

And yet so often the approach of the law in America seems to be “police don’t make mistakes and are never crooked.” If you speak out against any instances, some will accuse you of slander or bias. But for our justice system to improve, it can’t be an “all or nothing” defense of it. Just because we acknowledge there are serious flaws in some areas doesn’t mean we’re accusing the whole thing of being rotten.

When I watched this mini-series, I got angry. Angry that things like this can happen in our country. Angry that people can have their lives ruined so that other people can slap a proverbial “problem solved” sticker on an issue or a case. I want that to stop. I want a justice system that’s open and accountable. I’m very glad police have taken to wearing cameras on them at all times, though it’s disappointing that’s what it’s taken to get some of these travesties brought to light.

I get it. I understand life is complex, and the cut and dried Hollywood solutions on screen are rarely that way in real life. But at the same time, I’m growing very tired of the hackneyed tendency of some (mainly on the right) to pat other people on the head and claim that they’re all misguided children. And even as I write this, I know the reaction some will have to it. But I challenge anyone to try to argue that events like those depicted in this series don’t happen. If we can at least agree that they do, and that they shouldn’t, perhaps we could start to come up with ways to ensure less of them do in the future.

In any case, this is something I think should be watched. Yes, it’s extremely uncomfortable. And it’s not perfect. There are a few pacing issues in spots, but I ended up giving it a 9.5/10. Highly recommended. Now I want to search out the Ken Burns documentary that was made on the same topic.


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