Searching for Catharsis
Usually film reviews roll off my tongue — or rather, my keyboard — especially when the film in question packs a punch. But what about when art is powerful but also deeply painful? That was my experience with auteur Ava Duvernay’s new four-part Netflix limited-series When They See Us, released on May 31. Part of the challenge is that Duvernay’s work defies the typical Netflix binge experience. You binge the food that tastes good — that which, admittedly, isn’t always good for you — but rarely the stuff that is tough to swallow.
Duvernay has said this format allows people to digest the story in their own time, at their own pace. This is fair. I saw the first two parts of When They See Us at the National Association of Black Journalists Los Angeles Chapter (NABJLA) event at Neflix HQ. Tissues were on hand and in the subsequent Q&A, writer Attica Locke, and actors Blair Underwood and Niecy Nash revealed that Duvernay even had a grief counselor on set.
My strategy, meanwhile, was to simply get on the other side of it and reach conclusion as fast as I could. But when the full series released a few days later, I found no relief. All along, I was searching for a moment of catharsis. It never came.
The last time I had this experience, I was watching Requiem for a Dream as an early teenager. Just like Requiem, telling you simply and childishly that I enjoyed the thing would be a salve for you and for me. I can’t say I did precisely. But you should see it nonetheless. In the same way that we know the names of people who have soared in our country, often with the system working on their side and even bolstering them, we should also know the names of the people the system has betrayed or never had love for in the first place — Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Raymond Santana, Jr. (Marquis Rodriguez), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome) — five young Harlem boys of color collectively known as the Central Park Five.
The sweeping 2012 Ken and Sarah Burns documentary The Central Park Five made me fully aware of the tragic 1989 case, which kicked off almost right in my backyard. I learned how to ice skate at Lasker Ice Skating Rink and went fishing with my father under a nearby wooden bridge. All in the final half mile of green on the northern end of the city’s planned oasis.
Duvernay’s first shots are of youth and innocence. The youngest boy, Kevin, 14, aspires to be a trumpet player. Another, Antron, trades baseball stats with his hardworking father Bobby (Michael Kenneth Williams), who sneaks in a few life lessons for his son in return. For these five youth, Central Park is their backyard, as it is for many city kids. A young new genre blares from boomboxes, including Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” reprising the anthem from Spike Lee’s masterpiece released that same year.
Very quickly, though, the boys find themselves being rounded up and interrogated for hours on end at a nearby NYPD Precinct, eventually coerced into confessing to the heinous rape and assault of a late 20s white investment banker, Trisha Meili — a crime they didn’t even witness. In a way that Ken Burns’ documentary never quite could, When They See Us really mines the cinema, the spectacle and storytelling, involved in dehumanization. Hours pass like days as the boys go through torture, all without their parents, much less a lawyer, present. An older Hispanic officer interrogates Raymond Santana, Jr. in a lonely room. He not only plays the role of Good Cop, but also implicitly appeals to their shared heritage, functioning as a sort of janus-faced substitute father; Raymond’s own father Raymond Sr. (John Leguizamo) does make it to the precinct, but is soon pulled away by work.
Kevin, the youngest boy, particularly moved me whenever he came on screen and Asante Blackk’s desperate gaze feels reminiscent of George Stinney Jr., the youngest American ever sentenced to death and executed at 14-years-old.
Meanwhile, outside the precinct, it isn’t too long before the media machine goes to work, running with the lie. Police chatter and sensationalized radio segments echo like schizophrenic voices, seducing the city and the entire country into believing a narrative that never happened.
When They See Us Part One deals with the boys’ initial ordeal at the precinct and their eventual coerced confession, recorded on video. In current times, we see videos of people of color being victimized and ask why they didn’t just “comply” or not “run” or whatever else. For the Central Park Five, some wonder why they admitted to a crime they didn’t commit. But instead of being cornered by a bad-faith question, Duvernay instead shows us the deep humanity of these young boys and of the men and women who care for them trying their best. Bobby, himself a former con now with a steady job, also finds himself being manipulated by an officer, and in a decision that would haunt him for life, eventually tells his son to lie: “Tell these people what they wanna hear so you go home.” Humoring people in power, to stay alive, to fight another day, isn’t new to the marginalized.
Part Two of the series, written by Attica Locke, shifts to the trial. On its surface, it plays like a procedural — complete with lawyers and legal jargon, witnesses and surprise witnesses — but also has the kind of meaty characterization I miss in some procedurals. Again going back to the different experience I had with the Burns documentary, When They See Us truly forced me to see the Central Park Five not as a collective, but as five different boys, who each faced wildly different challenges as they moved through the system. I didn’t know, for instance, that the case played out over multiple trials, with some boys present at one trial, and others at another.
And then there’s the lawyers, a band of five guys with varying degrees of criminal defense experience, never mind emotional investment in the plight of these boys. Only one lawyer was a public defender with real criminal experience. Private attorney Robert Burns (Blair Underwood) represents Yusef and while his heart appears to be in the right place, is just in over his head, especially in the beginning.
Duvernay also challenges the notion that perhaps a more socioeconomically privileged black or brown kid would have fared better. Indeed, while all five boys hail from humble families, Yusef’s mother Sharon (Aunjanue Ellis), has deep ties to the black Muslim community in Harlem. She leverages this activist network and political awareness, including a powerful Part One scene where she tells off Prosecutor Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) and whisks Yusef away from what she recognizes as an illegal interrogation. But in the end, it’s not enough to save Yusef from his ultimate incarceration.
As we march toward the convictions, Duvernay inserts actual television footage of a certain 45 prez opining on the case and advocating for the death penalty. The words speak for themselves but Duvernay turns the lens back on the parents of these boys, letting them react, too. Yusef’s mother in particular is enraged but her friend reassures her: “Don’t worry, his 15 minutes are almost up.” This is not the optimistic storytelling of the Obama era, but rather our new 21st century Nadir, where progress is followed by backlash. And unforgiving irony.
By the time Part Three rolled around, I was looking for some relief. But while this is a homecoming, Duvernay doesn’t let us off the hook. An older Antron, Yusef, Raymond Jr, and Kevin are released from jail, and return to their Harlem lives, now completely changed. Antron’s return home in particular is understated as heck, and happens in a flash. The episode is replete with late 70s/early 80s hits including Slave’s upbeat “Watchin’ You”, evoking nostalgia yes, but also the sense that we’re suspended in time.
Back under his home roof, Antron still can’t forgive his father Bobby for what he considers leading him astray. It doesn’t help that Bobby barely showed up for the trial, either. Raymond Jr.’s story here was a standout especially for me. More than one of the boys tries to catch up as far as the birds and the bees goes, but Raymond Jr.’s story of just trying to find a quiet place to take his girlfriend hammers home how much was taken from these kids. And later, when Raymond Jr.’s UPS worker pal lets him borrow the keys to his pad for a few hours, we finally get a rare and much-needed exhale.
Consistent with Duvernay’s harangue of the justice system in 13th, we also learn a lot about the trappings of being on the outside, and how easy it is to rubber band back into the system. That you have to be inside before night even fully begins, even during the dog days of a New York City summer. And then there’s the struggle of finding stable employment, which harkens back to even the delicate position Bobby found himself in. The episode ends with Raymond Jr. resorting to dealing drugs and not too long after, getting busted.
There are a few more highs in Part Three, which made me start to feel like things were marching towards some kind of resolution, but then we hit Part Four, the most painful segment of the entire series.
Remember Korey Wise?
While the other boys got out earlier, Korey was imprisoned until 2002, and spent most of that time in adult prisons, dealing with sexual and physical abuse, and surviving near death beatings. A skinhead group targets Korey as well, forcing him to opt for solitary confinement instead, something he experienced often during his years behind bars.
It’s tough to write about this episode because the suffering depicted still feels so protracted and raw. At one point, it seems like Korey finally finds an ally in a decent prison guard, played wonderfully by Logan-Marshall Green, whom you might remember as Ryan’s older brother from The O.C. Only, the prison is far upstate, making it difficult for his visiting mother to deal with the cost and distance. So Korey takes a chance, opting to be placed in a new prison. But of course, the next one is far away from Harlem, too.
Duvernay tries to deal with Korey’s interior state through video and audio flashbacks, reflecting his declining sense of reality but maybe also, paradoxically, keeping his memories alive enough to remain tethered to the world he left behind. Delores Wise (Niecy Nash) stands out in the second two parts of the series, as a black mother who isn’t “Strong” but just human. She does the best she can to hold the family together and keep her boy alive. But she also has her blindspots, particularly when it comes to her trans daughter Marci.
We find out that Korey wasn’t only brutalized in prison, but was also a victim of bullying in school; it’s part of the reason why he was truant and behind in school. At Korey’s trial, in a way that’s reminiscent of Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, he is mocked for showing signs of illiteracy. However, Korey suffered from an unrecognized learning disability and hearing problems, all the while being interrogated and standing trial when he was just a teen.
Marci knew the most about these struggles that Korey otherwise kept to himself. She had his back and he hers. And so when Delores kicks Marci out of the house and Marci is later killed while Korey is still in jail, I was brought to tears for the first time in a long time.
I believe we only needed to see Korey in solitary confinement once or twice. Instead, these long drawn out moments end up kind of bludgeoning us. Every once in a while, Korey has a parole hearing, but once he realizes he’ll have to admit to a crime he didn’t commit, he bravely stops showing up for these altogether. In a way, this brings us back to the initial scenes at the precinct. And so when Korey stands up for himself, it also feels like he’s standing up for the rest of the Central Park Five.
Eventually, Korey crosses paths with Matias Reyes, a serial rapist who is actually responsible for the rape and assault on Trisha Meili. Even crazier, Matias beat and raped a woman in a similar part of the park two nights prior to his crime against Trisha Melli. And yet the cops never put two and two together.
I haven’t talked much about Prosecutor Linda Fairstein. Much like 45, though, it’s telling that even once the boys were exonerated, she stuck to her story. She’d convinced herself that these boys did it, so that’s all there is to it. This is the root of all bigotry, hating someone not just because of “who they are,” but because of the truth they represent.
In the short time since When They See Us came out, I’ve been searching for a cathartic moment. Something to give me hope. Maybe it’s unfair, but I harken back to Roots which spent a lot more time with its protagonist and the world left behind before things got bad. And while Roots has its painful moments, it also hits a lot more uplifting high notes too.
Recently, as folks learned about Linda Fairstein’s role in the case and her double life as a crime novelist, she’s resigned from the board of her alma mater Vassar College, from the board of a nonprofit, and lost her publisher. As it turns out, many others are also looking to more thoroughly resolve this tragic American story. Hopefully this remains a lasting thrust of Duvernay’s strongest work to date.
Is this not the value of art that is powerful but also deeply painful?