Updated: Sep 23, 2019
I must admit that this was one of the hardest series that I've ever had to watch for a number of very obvious reasons. One it was a very brutal, and very real depiction of what happened to the young man dubbed the "Central Park Five" who were falsely accused a rapping a white woman while jogging late one summer night in 1989. The five young actors that played the part of these five young men must be commended for their acting chops, because at the end of this series you truly felt like you had a birds eye view of the horrible and despicable circumstances that belie these innocent and virtually naive young black boys. Particularly, Jharrel Jerome who played the oldest of the group Korey Wise absolutely deserves an Emmy and Academy Award for his role in this series. He was extremely convincing in his character depiction of Korey Wise so much so that you almost felt the same emotions that Korey felt as you watched what he went through in his seemingly never-ending saga of innocence. You cried when he cried, you absolutely hurt when he hurt and you rejoiced when he rejoiced as he got the news of his release from prison being exonerated of the rape that it seems he was the only one who knew he didn't commit. I must also give Director Ava DuVernay a virtual standing ovation for not just taking this project on, but her unbelievable ability to tell these young men's story in such a way that even for those of who were around the ages of these young men in 1989, and not following the story as closely, you feel as if you were virtually placed right in that moment right with these young men. In fact, I just realized as i'm writing this blog, that I was around the same age as these young men who as Director Ava put it, lost their youth that fateful night in 1989 when they were arrested for a crime they didn't commit.
Secondly, this series was hard to watch because of the various themes that were masterfully interwoven and intertwined into this series despite the fact that it happened 30 years ago. The sad reality is that young black boys and men are still experiencing this kind of brutality, harassment and abuse from a system that Ava rightfully put, "is not broken, but it is actually doing what it was designed to do," and, that is to destroy the lives of our young black men. For years we have heard that the criminal justice system is broken and needs to be fixed. In fact, the Black Lives Matter Movement was inspired by the need for criminal justice reform in this country. But, I believe the reason it is has taken so long for us to see real change in this system, is because it has now become an institution rather than just a system. And, institution suggests that there are far greater implications involved than it just being a matter of young black boys being innocently accosted and arrested by the police. The greater implications suggest that there is far more at stake, there is profit and loss statements that need to be reviewed, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way the Black Culture is viewed by White America. That is why this series was appropriately titled "When They See Us" because this is really where the problem for these young boys begin. It wasn't just the fact that they were falsely accused of a crime that they didn't commit, it was that the White police offices in the NYPD who believed that were cleansing the streets of thugs and gangsters that deserved to be incarcerated. And, again Ava did a masterful job in picking these five young actors, because you saw the innocence on their tear soaked faces as they were arrested in front of their families and friends. Their innocence was en-mistakenly witnessed as they set across from the police officers being integrated, coerced and berated into accepting responsibility for a crime they didn't commit. These are just a few examples of what was actually taken from them that very day they went to jail...their youth. Ava said, in an interview with CNN, that she wanted to show the real crime that was committed against these young boys which was the robbery of their youth; showing how they were out enjoying themselves one summer night in 1989 and how that fateful night changed their lives forever. They would never be young boys again, because they now were forced into a world of adulthood that they should have never experienced this early in their life. A brutal and violent life; prison life that forced them to grow up faster than they could ever imagine. And, this series really shows just how their youth was abruptly cut short, and the impact of this being played out in the roughest and toughest prisons in America.
The part that is extremely unfortunate and telling for me was even though this took place some 30 years ago, it seems like it just happened yesterday. Given the political and racial climate of our society and how racially polarizing our nation has become, due in large part to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It seems that Donald Trump's Presidency has galvanized the Neo Nazis, White Supremacists, Klansmen and other bigoted racists in America. A president who at the time of the Central Park Five story in 1989 took out a advertisement in the New York Times declaring that these five black young men should be executed if that white jogger dies. And even after the DNA results were used to exonerate these young men, and the State of New York exonerated them and gave them a settlement of $41 Million dollars to split, this racist, narcissistic misogynistic, sexist, maniacal clown of a president would not apologize for making those racially charge comments about those innocent black young men. Not that they need his apology in order to truly feel free from the specter of White America, but it really just shows you how racist some people are to their core. Unfortunately, the White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, Fascists, Klansmen and other bigots are taking their marching orders directly from him. What a sad state of affairs. And, the violent treatment by the police that we saw in this docu-series, while it seem to portray a distant time frame in our country, it appears to be more relevant today than it has ever been before. What Director Ava DuVernay has masterfully done is shed light on a police and criminal justice culture that is largely prejudiced to black and brown boys and men. Their treatment of black and brown boys behind the bob-wired fences, and concrete walls of America is prima-facia evidence of just how our young black and brown boys and men are viewed by the larger society. Inasmuch as the policies and laws that shaped the criminal justice system are designed to destroy our black and brown boys and men and protect the keepers and perpetrators of these racist and criminal practices. This same president who likes to tout criminal justice reform as one of the positive of his presidency, when he himself is a big part of the racist stain that rests on this country. From Charlottesville, to his comments about African Countries, the Birther Movement, the Crime Bill, the Central Park Five, and the list goes on and on.
Another reason that this docu-series is hard to watch for most of us, is because we still cannot handle the truth. What we see, in the docu-series "When They See Us" is the real truth of this country. Ironically, only 2 and half years after thee most historic presidency in the history of our nation, this is STILL a truth that we just came seem to overcome. We naively and unwittingly thought that the legacy of the Pres. Obama's Presidency would be one that would resonate throughout this country for years and years to come. We thought that we would be reaping the benefits of his presidency long after he and First Lady Michelle had left the White House and the lovely daughters had forged a life for themselves as private citizens of this country. But, it seems as quickly as those 8 years went by so did the impact of his legacy as president seem to evaporate. There wasn't even enough momentum from Obama's Presidency to put another fellow Democrat in the White House. And, that was probably the most telling truth behind the farce of an election we as nation experienced in November 2016. The morning after that debacle sent shock-waves not just across the country, but even around the world. Ever since that fateful day back in November of 2016, Trump has eroded the political and economic relationships that his predecessor established around the world. Today our political allies are few and far between and the fact of the matter is that although it seems on the surface that the two are not directly related; the Trump Presidency and Ava DuVernay's series "When They See Us," in reality they really are. The real truth of our identity as a country is being revealed in this series about these five black and brown young men. A truth that we thought we had covered up, a truth that we thought had been hidden or disguised or set aside for a short period of time. A truth that we thought we may have overcome after the March on Washington. A truth that we thought we had outlasted after the release of Nelson Mandela from a South African prison. A truth that we thought we had decimated after the end of Apartheid in South Africa, a truth that we thought we had truly conquered after the inauguration of Nelson Mandela's 1st African President during its first Democratic held elections. A truth that thought had long since been defeated after the inauguration of our nation's 1st African American President in Barack Obama. But, unfortunately it is a truth that was hiding in plain sight all along and that is as a nation we still have a long ways to go when it comes to race relations, and criminal justice reform, and healing the wombs that were left from slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and so much more. The further it seems we have come as a nation, the further it seems we still have to go. As soon as we are at point where we begin to pat ourselves on our proverbial backs, we are reminded that the struggle continues. And, in reality this is what Ava was doing with this series, it was a historical reflection of a controversial time period in our nation's history and revisiting the impact of this case of five falsely accused black and brown young boys and what were the ramifications and consequences of this case. But, it was also a reminder to all of us of where we actually are as a country. And, it is definitely not as far ahead as we thought we were. That is definitely one of the basic takeaways from this series that really resonates with me. For those of who were caught in the euphoria of "Hope and "Change" and "Yes We Can" that time is long gone and it has unfortunately been replaced with "Make America Great Again" and "Build A Wall" and "Guilty until Proven Innocent." This is the narrative of today.
"When They See Us" is definitely a must see, but not just because it is another story told by Director & Social Activist Ava DuVernay, but I believe it is an opportunity for us to continue the discussion about how to educate our black young boys and men about how to engage the police, to know and understand the law, and to know your rights as a citizen of this country. All of these are important things for our young black and brown boys and men to know. It is also equally important for them to know that for us we are presumed guilty until proven innocent. It is unfortunately the other way around for men of color. This series definitely sheds light on this bold reality. When they see us, they don't see innocence, they don't see purity, they don't see good. They see the exact opposite; guilt, negativity and a whole lot of evil. But, who are "they?" What we discover is "they isn't even a qualified judge of our character, because their character is far more sinister an evil than their perceptions of "us." They are the slave masters, they are the Jim Crowers, they are the White Supremacists, they are the Neo-Nazis, they are the closet racists; who try to mask their intolerance with phrases like, " I have Black friends" or "I'm not a racist," they are the police officers and prison guards who wear uniforms in public but hoods in private. They are the ones who are controlling the narrative of our plight in this country. And, what is interesting is that they are in no position to judge anyone, because they are as evil and sinister as they see everyone else to be. Where do "they" get the moral license to be the judge, jury and executioner of black and brown people? The problem is, they are not concerned with whether they have the moral license are not; and this is the prevailing reason why this docu-series is so important, because changing how they see us is an arduous and seemingly insurmountable task. How someone sees you is much harder to change than making sure there our laws in place that govern people's actions. This is why Dr. King said, "Morality can't be legislated, but behavior cannot be regulated. Judicial decrees cannot change the heart but they can restrain the heartless." Powerful words that speak to the core of the problem. The problem we have been dealing with for centuries is how "they" see "us," and how do we change this for the better. Laws have been written, policies have been drafted, to help us as a society learn how to live together. I agree with Dr. King that this is indeed a matter of the heart, that time does heal some wombs, i'm not exactly sure about all wombs. But, while we wait for time to run its course, we must do something in the meantime, we must continue to work to change the narrative of our plight to as many who will hear us, we must continue to fight for our right to be treated as a human beings, to be treated as inherently equally created men and woman endowed with certain inalienable rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We must continue this dialogue of equality, we continue this conversation of justice for all regardless of race creed or color. If not, we will be forever indicted by the immortal words of Dr. King; who surmised about the plight of humanity if we continue down this path of intolerance and indifference to one another when he said, "we must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools."