It's been a year since When They See Us premiered, and the Netflix series remains an unnerving but important story — and one that deserves to be revisited. Ava DuVernay's gripping limited series tells the true story of the five teens of color, ranging in age from 14 to 16 years old, who were wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of a white woman in 1989. Across four installments, the Netflix drama illustrates in nauseating detail how police coerced Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson — originally dubbed the Central Park Five but now known as the Exonerated Five — into providing false statements. The series also showed the devastating effect those convictions had on the teens' lives in the aftermath.
Their traumatic story reopens unhealed wounds for black Americans who have and continue to endure mistreatment by law enforcement. In recent days, as thousands across the country protest police brutality following the recent killings of Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, DuVernay's searing Netflix series feels more relevant than ever.
When They See Us is difficult and necessary to digest for a number of reasons, one of which is the violence that all five were subjected to as kids — including physical assault, mental warfare, and thinly-veiled threats — by the grown-up individuals who swore to protect and serve them. The events of this series may be shocking for some, but their story is nothing new for black men and women who are, unfortunately, quite familiar with police abusing their authority as a means to an end. As the series illustrates over four episodes, black kids aren't given the grace to be young and carefree like others their age and are instead treated like adults well before their time.
DuVernay's four-parter is a series that stays with you long after the credits roll. Watching as these young boys are robbed of their childhoods, their families ripped apart, only to be exonerated years later when the actual culprit comes forward is agonizing. Filming those difficult scenes also invoked some visceral feelings in the show's cast and crew, which is why they were provided with a special crisis hotline that allowed them to talk out their emotions on particularly troubling days. Although Asante Blackk, who plays a young Richardson, didn't use the hotline himself, he did reveal the one scene that he couldn't shake off even after cameras stopped rolling.
"Usually it's very easy for me to snap out of the emotion, but for [the courtroom conviction] scene, it was crazy hard to snap out of that," Blackk told TV Guide ahead of the premiere last year. The second episode ends with all five boys convicted of the charges lobbied against them. While much of what was filmed made it into the series, the show left out one real-life moment that showcased how the case adversely affected the boys' families: Richardson's mother suffering a stroke while the jury read the verdict.
"We did film it," Blackk said. "Just having that feeling of not knowing what's wrong with your mom while you're being dragged to a prison, not knowing the next time you're gonna see her, I felt that after they called cut. I was angry for Kevin [Richardson]. Like, how could they do something like this to him? I was caught up in the emotion."
That scene and many others like it are what make When They See Us essential viewing. Those painful moments invite audiences to see the faces behind the Central Park Five moniker, to understand exactly what these boys endured as children who were caught up in a corrupt system actively working against them. For Jharrel Jerome, who plays Korey Wise throughout the series, When They See Us was an opportunity to give those wronged teens the dignity they were denied in real life.
"I hope that title comes to life for everybody because it's about time we see them," Jerome said. "We've heard of their story, but we don't see them as exactly who they are. We see them as the Central Park Five. It's time to break that and see them as individuals. I think that's what Ava and all of us, we're gonna try to do."
"I hope that [viewers] take away the effect that this had on their lives because a lot of people made a rush to judgment without any true knowledge of who they were," added Caleel Harris, who plays a young McCray. "I feel like that's why they titled it When They See Us, because finally, we get to see who they are as people. We finally get to see their lives outside of this crime. And you also see how this crime affected their lives even after their release."