Ava DuVernay has done the nation a service with her brilliant miniseries “When They See Us,” now airing on Netflix. It’s based on an ugly 1989 case that led to multiple coerced
confessions and false convictions, ruining the lives of five young males of color. It begins in 1989, when five teens from Harlem are arrested and prosecuted. A white woman jogging through Central Park was brutally raped, who didn’t then and doesn’t today remember who did it. But the five young men who were arrested got tortured and brutalized to the point they admitted guilt. They were subsequently convicted by juries of rape, assault and related crimes in two 1990 trials. The oldest, 16-year-old Korey was immediately sent to adult prison. All got maximum terms, with the juveniles later shifted over to adult prison.
But it turned out a lone serial rapist admitted his guilt, and DNA evidence, plus other corroborating material, got their sentences vacated. But by that time they had all served their sentences. The state withdrew all charges. DuVernay examines this atrocity through the eyes of its victims, using an ensemble and recurring cast. The performances, writing, direction and cinematography are all exceptional. The cast includes Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Michael K. Williams, Logan Marshall-Green, Joshua Jackson, Blair Underwood, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo , Niecy Nash, Aunjuane Ellis, Kylie Bunbury and Felicity Huffman. It was Huffman’s last role before her involvement in the infamous college bribery and admissions scandal was revealed.
Sadly, despite the series’ high quality, DuVernay has been under attack from former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein (portrayed by Huffman). She claimed in a Wall Street Journal editorial that the series is “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.” Fairstein headed the sex crimes unit of the DA’s office. She’s also reportedly the model used by super producer Dick Wolf for his “Law & Order:Special Victims Unit” show on NBC.
Don’t miss “When They See Us.” Despite what Fairstein claims, DuVernay and company worked directly with the Central Park Five throughout the filming to get as ,much accuracy as possible into the film. It’s also quite interesting that this week New York City awarded the Central Park Five even more money on top of the record breaking settlement they initially received. So much television is for mindless, easy consumption or pleasure. “When They See Us” should make you think, and also you to action, doing whatever you can to prevent a fiasco like this from ruining any more young people’s lives.