Devastating New Miniseries Examines The Horrors Faced By The Central Park 5

Jun 10, 2019
Originally published on June 11, 2019 11:14 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new Netflix miniseries directed by Ava DuVernay, "When They See Us," is about the five New York teenagers who were wrongly convicted for the violent rape of a woman in Central Park in 1989. Critic Soraya Nadia McDonald has a review.

SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD, BYLINE: Their names are Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Kevin Richardson. They were known as the Central Park Five, accused of brutally assaulting and raping a white jogger. Their guilt, not their innocence, was presumed because they were black and Latino. Police were determined to solve the rape case quickly, egged on by the press at a time when New York felt lawless.

Cops rounded up all the kids they could and zeroed in on the five boys, aged 14 to 16, even though there was no evidence or logical timeline to tie them to the assault. The teens were held for hours without lawyers. Investigators vilified them in the news media. Donald Trump took out paid ads in New York papers calling for the state to bring back the death penalty and execute them.

Now, a miniseries from writer and director Ava DuVernay provides a 360 degree view of how the case rocked each boy's family and how corrupt, racist systems can doom innocent minorities. In 2012, Ken and Sarah Burns released their documentary "The Central Park Five." "When They See Us" hews closely to the facts that were presented in the documentary but with some expected dramatic license, namely that it compresses the events in the first episode but still represents the truth of the outcomes. Mostly, though, it fills in the lost years of the boys' lives.

The story is a difficult one to watch, given that it features children begging for their parents and being treated like hardened career criminals. New York City prosecutor Linda Fairstein, who voiced objections to her portrayal after receiving much public criticism since the series premiered, is shown to have pursued the case aggressively, painting the five as monsters. In the series, she presses the case even though she recognizes there are problems with the timeline which showed the boys were in different sections of the park at the time the jogger was raped.

In this scene, Fairstein, played by Felicity Huffman, discusses the case with a detective played by William Sadler.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHEN THEY SEE US")

WILLIAM SADLER: (As Michael Sheehan) Trisha Meili lives East 83rd Street. Her boyfriend says he spoke to her on the phone at 9 p.m. His assistant in the office placed the call for them. They talk, and she leaves to go out jogging. She's downstairs at 9:05. And she says hi to the doorman and takes off on her regular run north on East Drive. Boyfriend says she's an experienced runner. She does a steady 8-minute mile. She goes in at 88th Street. Eight minutes per mile, it's 9:15 when she gets to the place where she's dragged off the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FELICITY HUFFMAN: (As Linda Fairstein) That's a 45-minute discrepancy.

SADLER: (As Michael Sheehan) We could pull the rape up to 9:20. You know, maybe she stopped to tie her shoes or something.

HUFFMAN: (As Linda Fairstein) No, it's still out of whack. How can these same kids be raping her at the same time they're jumping bicyclists way over there?

ARIEL SHAFIR: (As Detective Jaffer) Nothing on the weapon, question marks on the timeline - I mean, we got problems.

MCDONALD: DuVernay is experienced in uncovering the beauty in difficult stories, especially those about how everyday black lives are disrupted by systemic injustice. Throughout previous works - "Middle Of Nowhere," "Queen Sugar" and "Selma" - two things remain consistent. She focuses on relationships, and she maintains a moral clarity about who has power in our society, who does not and how that power is abused. DuVernay balances the stories of five separate families and the challenges of having a child in prison, thanks to getting performances from the ensemble cast.

One of the stories, that of Antron McCray's incarceration, is one of bitterness and guilt. Antron is bitter because his father, Bobby, didn't do more to protect him. And guilt eats at Bobby McCray, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, for not being able to give his son better advice and for encouraging Antron to cooperate with the police. By the time Antron is free, his father is hobbled by illness. Two sets of actors play the four teenagers who are barely in the throes of puberty when they were arrested and adults when they were freed.

Jharrel Jerome plays Wise from 16 through his adult years, a smart nod to the fact that he was the lone boy sentenced as an adult. Late in the series, Jerome is transcendent, depicting a trembling, terrified Wise as he's moved from one torture chamber at Rikers to another at Attica. For 13 years - more than double the time served by the other boys - Wise cycled between abuse at the hands of guards and other prisoners and madness in the relative safety of solitary confinement. While in prison, Wise's sister Marcy, who was trans, is murdered. Here, the prison chaplain, played by Jeff Williams, informs Wise of his sister's death. Jerome as Korey Wise responds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHEN THEY SEE US")

JHARREL JEROME: (As Korey Wise) I should call my moms - make sure she OK.

JEFF WILLIAMS: (As Prison Chaplain) We're here to make sure that you're OK, Korey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JEROME: (As Korey Wise) Me?

WILLIAMS: (As Prison Chaplain) Yes, we are here for you.

JEROME: (As Korey Wise) You're here for me? Nah, I'm going to be in here forever, sir. I'm not sure what you mean.

WILLIAMS: (As Prison Chaplain) If there is there anything...

JEROME: (As Korey Wise) I'm going to be in here forever, sir. I don't know what you mean.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) All right. Come on. Let's go. Come on.

JEROME: (As Korey Wise) Don't touch me. Don't touch me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCDONALD: The five teens who were arrested in 1989 were men when they were cleared in 2002 after a serial rapist confessed to the crime. News organizations published corrections and covered the story then, too. Still, nothing could really undo the years of damage to their reputations - until now. DuVernay leaves viewers unable to forget the horrors five boys faced because adults responsible for upholding justice instead chose to subvert it. She illustrates how they became cogs in a bigger machine. But most of all, "When They See Us" issues a challenge. Now that we know exactly what the machine does, what will we do to stop it?

DAVIES: Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. "When They See Us" is streaming on Netflix. On tomorrow's show, inside Kim Jong Un's North Korea. We'll speak with Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield, who's traveled to the country 12 times and interviewed members of the leader's family. We'll talk about daily life and economic changes in North Korea, the regime's brutal repression and surveillance, the failed nuclear talks with the U.S. and some strange moments when Dennis Rodman visited the country. Fifield's new book is "The Great Successor." Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON'S "DR. DO RIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.