April 19, 1989 New York. Trisha Meili, a jogger out for her daily run at Central Park, is brutally beaten and raped. That night a group of teenagers from Harlem assaults and robs some passersby in the same park, drawing police attention. Meili will be in a coma for twelve days and five innocent boys will be charged with the crime, after hours of questionable police interrogations.
When They See Us is a 2019 four-part Netflix original production, a gripping reconstruction of the so-called Central Park Five case, which was supposed to be the initial title. African American creator Ava Duvernay (also known for 13th, a documentary on the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the U.S.) changed it to express the need to take a look at unseen black lives, defining the headline used by newspapers as a “not chosen moniker thrust upon these men”.
This five hour-long story is a dense mix of problems America is still suffering from: systemic racism, inequality, fear, and oppression. The boys’ powerlessness before law and police enforcement is counterbalanced by their endurance while facing injustice, thanks to brilliant performances from young and veteran actors alike (Jharrel Jerome is also known for Moonlight and Asante Blackk took part in the fourth season of This Is Us). Both writing and visuals feel honest and authentic, deeply rooted in real world dynamics and never emotionally detached from the pain they were inspired by.
When They See Us Now – a one-hour special of interviews with the creator, actors and real protagonists of the story hosted by Oprah Winfrey – is a powerful example of reciprocity between fiction and reality. The painful testimony of those who saw their lives torn apart by a conscious mistake – who suffered immensely but somehow survived – highlights the long way left to go towards equality as a reality, rather than an ideal.