REVIEW:  When They See Us – Central Park Five


30 years might appear long ago……. but not really.

If you saw “When They See Us” that is great news AND if you ALSO saw the actual documentary “The Central Park 5” – Congratulations, you are in the top of the class.  If you only have seen one of the titles or haven’t seen any at all……. please do yourself a favor and do your homework – watch them.  The 1989 Central Park Five issue has been reignited with Ava DuVernay’s recent production.  It is the most talked about subject at work, at home or at play.  DuVernay’s piece makes it that much riveting or fuels inspiration for you to get up to speed.  Even the person who takes pride in being the local curmudgeon will appreciate the time they invest to join the crowd.  


Noted film-maker Ava DuVernay has struck a nerve across the globe with her docu-drama series, “When They See Us.”  Fueled by the Netflix platform a record 23 million viewers tuned into the first month, which was June 2019.  “When They See Us” is a spin-off from the documentary.

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 20: (L-R) Raymond Santana, Jr., Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, director Ava DuVernay, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam attend the World Premiere of Netflix’s “When They See Us” at the Apollo Theater on May 20, 2019 in New York City. at The Apollo Theater on May 20, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic) (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

The Central Park Five” which was created by the erstwhile story teller, Ken Burns and his daughter, Sarah.  Their piece showcased in 2012.

Both pieces relive the story of five teenagers from Harlem who happened to be at New York’s Central Park when Trisha Ellen Meili while doing her routine jog was viciously raped and left for dead.  The case exploded in the media as the teenagers were rounded up and faced charges of the jogger’s plight.  They were comprised of four African-Americans and one Puerto Rican.  The victim was a young career professional who was white.

A matter of perspective

Public sentiment was fueled by the racial characteristics of the incident.  During that period there was an epidemic in communities across the United States being affected by drugs and other criminal behavior.  Those in urban cores such as Harlem was defined as “ground-zero” for the mayhem which became an everyday occurrence.

 

As difficult as it is for people to candidly talk about race, in reality it is pretty easy as it can only be based on one’s perspective or experience.  Such is the case when you read and hear comments about both pieces.  Generally, whites or those who adopt a white perspective define the films a certain way and those who are non-white see things from a different lens.  More specific whites see police or those in authority of simply doing there job.

DuVernay takes you on a journey to help you grasp the issue from the beginning such as giving you a glimpse of what life looked like for those teenagers who were charged.  Her piece was split into four parts with each being a little bit more than one hour.  So, after completing the journey you have consumed a piece of history that very few could articulate while insuring accuracy to understand a very complex subject.

Sarah Burns

In the documentary one of the teenagers,  Kevin Richardson tells how he was approached by then college student Sarah Burns who was researching a project for one of her classes.  She wanted his permission to share his perspective of the incident.

She persuaded her father, Ken Burns to help bring the story to life via a documentary.  Through their team they produced a piece which was woven into two hours.  The footage they produced never stopped as with the case of most of their films. Hard facts and the actual subjects zoom right into your zone.

(Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for NPCA)

Race

Both pieces showcase the issue of racial injustice.  They showcase ego and incompetence.  They showcase the personal and financial toil of how families must navigate a person who is incarcerated.  They showcase fear in victims who must suffer the wrath and intimidation of those investigating and/or interrogating them.  They showcase the rawness or life for those incarcerating and the basic survival skills necessary to stay alive and not lose your mind.  They showcase the paltry support system of those who have served their time and must transform themselves back into their community.

Central Park Jogger case at 100 Center St. in Manhattan. DA asks for more time to review evidence. Demonstrators protest outside courthouse in favor of dismissal. Council member Perkins, Dolores Wise, Mother of Khery, and Raymond Santana Sr. (Photo By: Michael Albans/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Despite their incarceration the five teenagers had morphed into manhood from serving their time.  Following serving their time, they accepted their sentence and simply committed to get on with their lives.  Call it a fluke, luck or magic the five held onto to their knowledge of serving time for a crime they did not admit.  Years had passed but by chance, the person who actually committed the crime came forward and shared his confession with the oldest defendant; Kory Wise and later with prison authorities.

“This tragedy reminds us how much we struggle to come to terms with America’s original sin, which is race,” Ken Burns.

The bottom-line is all had their sentences exonerated.  Even with the clear confession and proof the five had nothing to do with the initial crime.  The prosecution and various authorities as well as many in the public could not accept, they were totally vindicated.  Yes, the victim who performed the rape was finally identified BUT many people simply brought into the notion that prosecution or authorities would never resort to coercing any type of confession or they subscribed to the belief the teenagers lived in projects and had troubled-lives so even though there was no evidence they did the act, surely they most be guilty – if not for the rape, OF SOMETHING!!!  Part of their assessment was based on confessions molded on their naïve belief that “who would confess to something they did not do?” but to be more specific they allowed the disparity of race to cloud their lens in proclaiming the five young men as guilty.

 

Just as Sarah Burns and her dad received extraordinary acclaim for their documentary, the same can be expected for DuVernay and her team as they have presented a compelling piece or work that will be referenced for years way into the future.

 

Recommendation

DuVernay’s piece is split into four parts so give yourself enough time to absorb and understand the content.  No doubt since there is more than four hours of footage, she was able to stretch out more than what is presented in the documentary.  That is necessary to help you understand the complexity of the characters and the issues they faced.

 

The documentary is a must see, as by investing two hours you are able to grasp actual information and filter it through your own lens or understanding.  Your assignment is not complete until you have seen the docu-drama and the documentary.