On the evening of April 19, 1989, a large group of black teenage boys entered the northeast sector of Central Park. Some would be arrested for the assault and robbery of various park goers. That same night, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker, was found naked, gagged, and beaten unconscious in the park. Out of the 30 or so boys taken into custody that night, sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein saw a tenuous link between five of them and Meili. After hours of interrogation without an attorney (or, at times, their parents), four of the five confessed to being accomplices to Meili’s rape, assault, and attempted murder. The Central Park Five — Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson — were eventually convicted of various charges in the absence of physical evidence, and would spend between 6 and 13 years in prison before the state completely exonerated them.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the arrests, filmmaker Ava DuVernay has directed a new miniseries for Netflix about the case, When They See Us. This is not the first time this story made its way to the screen. Sarah Burns, along with her father Ken Burns and husband David McMahon, directed the 2012 documentary The Central Park Five. That film is an affecting indictment of the NYPD’s simultaneously lazy and overworked system, which carelessly shuffled the boys into prison, and of the runaway media train that indulged the likes of Donald Trump and the bluster of Al Sharpton. It asks viewers to consider the climate that made such a horrifying outcome an almost mechanical inevitability — the crack epidemic, the AIDS crisis, socioeconomic disenfranchisement under Reaganomics, and widespread racial tension.
When They See Us traffics in a similar mode of profound trauma and institutional rot. The four-episode series goes further, though, seeking not only to indict the NYPD and the media, but also society and its fear of the black body. While the documentary is nearly bombastic in its assertion that the reporting on the case and its ravenous consumption by the public clouded the truth, DuVernay has a much more nuanced understanding of cultural discourse. In her view, the case of the Central Park Five is a triumph of language and feelings over facts.
The miniseries oscillates between a crime show, a courtroom drama, and a psychological dive into the prison system. The first two episodes reenact the arrest, interrogation, and trial of the boys. The last two focus on their time in prison. The opening and concluding installments are the strongest, and left me feeling like I punctured a lung. The series begins with an extended prologue which establishes each of the boys as heartbreakingly normal. Young Antron McCray (Caleel Harris evincing dead-eyed wisdom) sits with his stepfather discussing the Yankees, for example. This is darkly mirrored by the ending, in which the now-grown leads must attempt to return to civilian life, where their inexperience with the normal adult world and status as sex offenders make for a tough time in late ‘90s / early ‘00s Harlem.
What makes DuVernay’s portrayal of the case so brutal is that the viewer must process two narratives unfolding simultaneously. The first is the truth: The boys are just kids who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We see them shoot the shit with their girlfriends, excel at the trumpet, skip grades and go to college, obsess over baseball, make a single dad proud. The second narrative grows out of a gut feeling: The boys, described as “thugs” by one of the detectives, are instantly worthy of suspicion, with a side of police brutality.
The fallout of Trisha Meili’s attack demonstrates how cultural fears undergird institutional injustice. It’s only in this light that a black teenage boy could be viewed as old enough to be questioned by the police without his parents or an attorney. On the basis of race alone, even in the absence of any discernible evidence, a person of color is considered a viable provocateur of barbarity. This fear led authorities and the media to manufacture their narrative of that night: Five ultra-violent black boys, struck by a manic lust for brutality right out of A Clockwork Orange, committed an abhorrent crime against a woman.
When Fairstein (played with the utter conviction of an entitled smarmy white woman by Felicity Huffman) takes over the Meili case, she believes she has found her perpetrators after merely glancing upon the boys in holding. She describes their actions as a “rampage,” saying that the city needs “an army of blues in the projects” to find the perpetrators. There is no talk of a competent investigation. Instead, the prosecutor and the detectives fixate on the slang the kids use to describe the night. The teens saying they were just “wylin” turns into a media hysteria around “wilding.” DuVernay juxtaposes the casual statements authorities make on the boys with images of them being beaten by the police and coerced into confessions. The violence and confusion surrounding the case is shown as a direct consequence of the animalistic language the NYPD and the media use to describe them.
Artist Alexandra Bell does something similar in her series No Humans Involved: After Sylvia Wynter, in which she reproduces newspaper headlines about the case and both highlights and redacts select words. Included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, Bell highlights the headline from the Daily News from April 21, 1989 declaring “Wolf Pack’s Prey,” where the word “savage” is used to describe the attack. In another excerpt, Bell highlights a paragraph from an April 23 article: “In the dense projects and crowded tenements that are home to the teenagers accused of the beastly acts against the woman jogger, all the problems of the urban poor come together like a vine.”
What Bell and Burns miss in their investigations into the Central Park Five is that our national tendency toward dehumanizing language and narratives cannot simply be displayed. Any artistic endeavor that attempts to grapple with the consequences of public discourse must be attuned to the difficult incongruence between facts and language. In the final episode of When They See Us, the audience endures a condensed 12 years in prison alongside Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome, whose quiet, emotive performance intensifies the already traumatic story). He’s often locked in solitary confinement, haunted by the ghosts of how the world told his story. That haunting doesn’t lift when his sentence does; this is still the same world that tried to tear those boys apart.