First off, the acting was superb; award winning in fact. Actually, the entire movie was an award-winning caliber production.
Ava Duvernay outdid herself in the making of this one. I absolutely loved that part of it. On the other hand, the story itself made me sad, angry and fearful for my sons and nephews.
This movie polarizes how when the system is out to get you, there is very little you can do, especially if you are Black or Latino and the victim is Caucasian.
It illustrates how rights can be trampled upon, how suspects are mistreated, prisoners are brutalized, by guards and inmates alike, how minors have no business being tried as adults and how prosecutors try to win, at all costs. In short, it shines a light on so many of the things wrong with the criminal justice system.
“When They See Us” is about five teenagers who were charged, convicted and subsequently exonerated in the 1989 rape of a Central Park jogger. The five young men, who ranged in age from 14 to 16 years old, became known as the “Central Park Five.”
In the four-part movie, we see the five young men and their families go through hell and back, being coerced, harassed, abused, lied to and grilled by the police for 42 hours and then prosecuted and convicted, all without credible evidence.
While it is known that the police can and do employ various tactics (tricks) to elicit a confession, it was very unsettling to actually see what amounted to a frame-up and malicious prosecution; one that even the lead prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga), seemed to want no part of. At one point, I wanted to stop watching, but it was like a train wreck; you know, you can’t take your eyes off of it.
The “Central Park Five” were: Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse (minor) and Chris Chalk (adult)), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo (adult)), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares (adult)) and Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk and Justin Cunningham (adult)). They were wrongfully incarnated for six to more than a dozen years and then finally completely exonerated, when in 2002, serial rapist Matias Reyes (Reece Noi) confessed to having committed the rape. At the time of Reyes’ confession, Korey Wise was still in prison, as he was the only one tried and sentenced as an adult and robbed of more than a dozen years of his life.
At the end of the film, it was shared what the Central Park Five are doing since being exonerated, suing and winning a $41 million dollar lawsuit against the city of New York. I was happy to see after being robbed of their youth and assaulted by the criminal justice system that they were able to move on with their lives, even if Linda Fairstein and the officers involved are yet to admit their part in the ordeal.
Kudos to the actors who played the “Central Park Five.” All of them were beyond believable and got into their characters. The actors/actresses who played their parents also did amazing jobs. Niecy Nash (Delores Wise), Aunjanue Ellis (Sharon Salaam) John Leguizamo (Raymond Santana Sr.), Blair Underwood (Attorney Bobby Burns) and Felicity Huffman (Sex Crimes Lead Linda Fairstein) were among those who also lent their extraordinary talent to this production.
Although “When They See Us” was very hard for me to watch and right afterwards I wished I hadn’t, I am actually glad I did. Why? Because it lets me know, I was 100% correct when I told my sons if they are ever questioned by the police, the only thing they want to say is they want a lawyer, because anything else can and will be used against them. It is unfortunate, but true. Although not all police and prosecutors are bad characters, sometimes it really is us against them, so better safe than sorry.
Marilyn Smith is a Los Angeles based writer/reviewer. Contact her via [email protected]