“When They See Us”: a semi-review
We know that the brutal rape of Trisha Meili, of which five adolescents, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam were convicted, was in fact committed by serial rapist and murderer Marias Reyes, who confessed to attacking Meili on his own in 2002. But the question of whether they were part of a group of teenagers who attacked at least eight other people in Central Park that night is conspicuously underplayed in the popular narrative as presented in Ava DuVernay’s new series on Netflix. Rather than depict real events as they are, full of nuance, uncertainty and complexity, DuVernay portrays the boys as the very embodiment of innocence. On the other hand, as they ruthlessly destroy the lives of five scapegoats chosen almost at random, detectives and prosecutors are portrayed as not merely unscrupulous, callous, or overzealous, but positively evil.
Numerous questions surrounding the events of April 19th, 1989 remain unanswered. We will never know why upon being arrested two of the boys stated that they were innocent of “the murder” and pointed the finger at their friend Antron. Notably, this was before Trisha Meili had even been found. Or why Melonie Jackson, a sister of a friend of Korey Wise, voluntarily reported to the police that Wise had told her of his involvement in the rape. That fateful night in Central Park was like a scene out of A Clockwork Orange. Several people were chased, robbed and beaten. Two men were left unconscious and soaked in blood. As shown in the first episode, the five boys were part of a group of about thirty moving through the park. When the police arrived the swift of foot fled the scene and suspicion fell on those unfortunate enough to be seized. We will never know whether any one of The Central Park Five directly participated in the attacks, or whether, as the film depicts it, they simply followed the other boys, going somewhere, for some reason, late at night. The five were convicted (along with five other boys, now forgotten) of participating in the attacks, but when their innocence of the rape was proven conclusively all convictions were overturned.
What we do know is that Ava DuVarney’s tendentious retelling of the story is not only infuriatingly dishonest in intent, but also ridiculously clumsy in execution. We can only speculate about the rationale behind some of her choices as writer and director. We see the group of boys striding merrily through the park. Three white cyclists dash through the group as if expecting it to simply move out of their way. A racist microaggression? “Fight the Power” is playing in the background. In the next scene some of the boys witness unidentified black men beat up a white man. The victim is wearing a camouflage jacket and appears defiant. Were they blocking his way, or was he looking for a fight? And why does DuVarney feel the need to have someone say “bunch of white dudes jumped me in the Bronx last week. Payback’s a bitch”?
The entire chain of events between their arrest and the beginning of the interrogation is shown in a few brief scenes. A white police officer calls the 14 year old Richardson a “little animal” and bashes him with his helmet. Then they’re all at the police station, except for Antron. The film doesn’t examine the possibility that, when two of the boys said that Antron committed “the murder”, they were perhaps referring to one of the other assaults. Antron is shown hiding in the bushes. Instead, we see the blonde haired villainess Linda Fairstein, the head of the sex crime unit, coaxing one of the suspects into giving up Antron’s name and address. A clueless boy manipulated into betraying his friend. Their fates are sealed.
Sixteen minutes into the first episode we see Fairstein attaching sticky notes to a map: one for the rape, and five for other seemingly unrelated attacks. “All this is happening in the park and it’s not connected?” she says, and just like that it’s decided: “They’re not witnesses. They’re suspects.” We then follow the investigation as Fairstein continues to construct a narrative around the premise that the rape of Trisha Meili was part of a violent rampage by a roving band of young black men, who she repeatedly refers to as “animals”.
“I need the whole group,” Fairstein says. “Every young black male who was in the park last night is a suspect in the rape of that woman who is fighting for her life right now.” She appears to be driven by outrage at the rising number of rapes in the city. However, considering that Trisha Meili had no memory of the attack, it’s quite clear that we’re expected to arrive at a predetermined conclusion regarding Fairstein’s motivations. The entire thing is quite unconvincing. There were over 91,000 aggravated assaults in New York City that year. That’s at least 249 per day, but we’re expected to believe that investigators chose to tie the boys to the rape simply because half a dozen incidents occurred within the limits of one of the city’s crime hotspots? No. Rather, Just as Fairstein begins with the conclusion that the boys committed the crime and then builds the case from that, the audience is expected to follow circular reasoning which begins and ends with systemic racism.
The rush to convict the five boys may have been influenced by racial bias, but it was driven primarily by shock at the brutality of the crime and a largely justified hysteria over rising crime rates. There were over 5,000 rapes in New York City that year, over 2,000 murders, over 100,000 robberies. Donald Trump was not the only one thirsting for the blood of robbers and rapists. In the weeks after the attack a reporter for The Village Voice spoke to local residents who identified several of the suspects as belonging to “a group of sometimes violent neighborhood troublemakers”. Can we dismiss that as nothing but fake news pushed by New York City’s liberal media?
A New York Times review of the 2012 documentary about the Central Park Five suggested that the film would have told a better story if it hadn’t been so one-sided. This is all the more true of DuVarney’s morality play:
Because the one thing that it fails to do persuasively is explain why so many people in New York, including African-Americans and professional skeptics writing in left-leaning publications like The Village Voice, almost immediately accepted that the teenagers were guilty and believed the police, with whom these same skeptics had often been politically at odds.
In 1989 the media eagerly accepted the false narrative constructed by the police, which depicted the Central Park Five as monsters of cruelty. Judging by the uncritical reviews this series has received, little has changed since. But some reviewers have pointed out this show’s unusual approach to true crime stories. For example, Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic:
DuVernay, who directed and co-wrote all four episodes, isn’t particularly interested in reinvestigating this case, or even in delving into the circumstances that led up to it. Her motivation, rather, is to delineate five individuals whose identities were erased and rewritten before they’d even had the chance to finish eighth grade. This is a work that wants viewers to see these people, and the fullness of their humanity, above everything else.
Fairness and accuracy are easily discarded in the pursuit of such a lofty goal as showing the fullness of someone’s humanity, but we mustn’t forget that humanity is capable of far greater cruelty than any other animal. The Washington Post also observed that the series “bluntly but successfully turns this story inside-out, borrowing the look of true-crime dramas while discarding the genre’s usual tropes.” Viewers who may be concerned with the victim (or rather, victims) are dismissed sarcastically: “You can absorb what “When They See Us” is trying to tell you, or you can retreat comfortably back to the open-shut templates of “Law & Order” reruns.”
In sum, the question of whether the Central Park Five are truly guilty or innocent can never be answered. DuVarney is guilty, however, of selling her moralistic narrative as a true story. It will be remembered for what it says about the dominant ideologies of 2019, not the events of 1989. No one who lived in New York City during that time could possibly believe the story it tells. It is, however, sure to incite rage among the young and impressionable.