‘When They See Us’

I Once Played the Central Park Jogger, but Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Miniseries Tells the Real Story

I moved from New York City to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, with side work in performance art, in October of 1988. It was seven months before the Central Park “wilding” incident that seized the fevered imagination of white America and sent five innocent young men to jail. Among my first gigs was at Highways Performance Space, where I played the part of the Central Park Jogger in a piece called “Prometheus Against a Black Landscape,” created by Keith Antar Mason of The Hittite Empire. As the world was lining up black boys to serve as sacrificial lambs, we were making theater that explored the long agony of the black experience in racist America.

It became increasingly clear to all of us, as the specious facts of the case unfurled, that the justice system had falsely accused Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, and railroaded them into jail. The experience of playing the only acknowledged “victim” of this crime was my formal introduction, as a white woman, to the brutality of institutionalized racism in America. It gave me an education I never forgot, and emotionally attuned me to this sad story ever since.

So it was with this background that I came to Ava DuVernay’s painful and beautiful drama When They See Us, a four-part mini-series that tells the story from its beginning on April 19, 1989 to the present. It traces not only that chaotic night in Central Park and the following interrogation and trial, but the long incarceration of the five boys and their attempts to pick up their lives once New York State finally set them free.

A Gimlet Eye for an Ugly Time
When They See Us, directed by Ava DuVernay.

It’s not easy to watch these hopeful, foolish children, so full of promise, swept into a chain of events that would quickly destroy their lives. DuVernay’s camera soaks up their soft innocence, with their 1980’s flat-top do’s and adolescent hubris. She has a gimlet eye for the place where we all grew up: dirty, frenetic, and fraught with crime. Our segregated city was full of unsupervised kids raised on racial tension. Black and Hispanic boys who came down from Harlem, which lay a few blocks north of my building, regularly mugged me for my bus pass and pocket change. New York was still reeling from Tawana Brawley’s false rape accusation when the cops brought in the Central Park Five for questioning. It was an ugly, confusing time.

The true antagonists of When They See Us are not the suspects, but the legendarily crooked, racist officers of the NYPD. DuVernay depicts them in all their thump-and-cuff aggression, buttressed by a legal system laced with the arsenic of political ambition. Vera Farmiga does a nice turn in a bad wig as prosecuting attorney Elizabeth Lederer, who knows better but falls prey to her own appetite for victory. But the true bête noire is Linda Fairstein, portrayed by the supremely talented if morally compromised Felicity Huffman, who in real life has just famously pleaded guilty in a college admissions bribery scheme. This accidental stunt casting adds the weight of today’s headlines to our understanding of persistent racial inequality in America.

Fairstein pushes the detectives on her watch to coerce false testimony from the unaccompanied minors in their custody. It is both savage and mind-blowing. But just in case we don’t get it, DuVernay shoots these characters from below, making them appear monolithic and Rushmore-ian. These boys were so very small compared to what and who they were up against.

Our current President, Donald J. Trump, plays a notorious role in this tale. It helped form his racist political reputation. As the trial progressed, Trump paid for full-page ads in four major papers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty and the summary execution of the five suspects. It didn’t happen, in part because most New Yorkers at the time thought Trump was a big joke. In one chilling scene in When They See Us, the mother of one of the boys watches a Trump interview and says, “Keep that bigot off TV.” To which her friend replies, “Don’ worry, his fifteen minutes almost up.” Alas, thirty years later, the joke is on us.

A Very Special Episode of Oprah
You don’t get a car, but you get a hug. Oprah Winfrey and the Central Park Five.

If these four-plus hours of harrowing dramatic recreation don’t completely convince you that the system destroyed the lives of these kids, then here comes Oprah in a special bonus feature, where she trots out DuVernay, the actors, and their real-life counterparts for a searching post-mortem. Though New York has given the “five exonerated” (which Oprah proclaims is what we are now to call them)  their settlement, returning them to some semblance of a life, the damage writ on their faces makes it clear they paid a non-refundable price.

This is particularly true for Korey Wise. His younger cohorts received shorter-bid juvie sentences. But Korey, two months past his 16th birthday, went to adult prison and spent the longest time behind bars. Korey disappears from the narrative in episode three, but episode four is almost all his, as we watch adult prisoners brutalizing this child. He asks prison management to put him in isolation in order to save his own life, and those scenes are among the most powerful. In one scene, Korey imagines he passed up the call to go to Central Park and instead took his girlfriend to Coney Island. It is the only truly joyful moment, providing heartbreaking contrast to the four hours of grueling drama.

Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise in When They See Us.

Jharrel Jerome does a stunning job of playing both the young and the adult Korey, but when we see the actual man–shy, halting, pain stamped across his face–we fully absorb the cost of this human tragedy. “I am a broken man,” he stammers softly to Oprah, and we understand that the jubilant, victorious ending of When They See Us is the end of only the miniseries, not the end of real lives. The real story has no happy ending.

It’s been thirty years since I enacted that wilding onstage. Now I know I was acting out a fantasy, and the whole world knows that those boys were nowhere near the jogger. A lone psychopath named Matias Reyes bludgeoned the young woman and dragged her into the bushes to rape her, smash her skull with a rock, and leave her for dead. Had NYPD really tried to find the criminal, had prosecutors allowed the lack of evidence to slow their roll toward building a case against a bunch of middle schoolers, they would have spared not only the five boys endless trauma, but also saved the lives of Matias’ five future female victims.  When They See Us is a painful and much-needed reminder of what happens in a rigged system, where justice is not blind, but blinkered.

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Erika Schickel

Erika Schickel is the author of You’re Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom, and the memoir The Big Hurt. She has written reviews and features for The Los Angeles Times, The LA Weekly, Salon, Tin House, Leafly.com and others.

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