In a post–True Detective world, “miniseries” refers to a very specific kind of show: led by movie stars, designed as awards catnip for prestige television outlets, and often not a miniseries at all, but a trial run for future, even bigger appointment viewing. Once upon a time, however, the miniseries used to connote a different set of signifiers: centered on a specific social issue, driven by an unambiguous message, and delivering that message in a highly concentrated dose—a sort of supersize Very Special Episode. Over the years, the latter school of miniseries has come to seem as dated as the idea that certain performers are too famous for TV. Occasional exceptions like ABC’s 2017 saga When We Rise have only proved the rule.
When They See Us, director Ava DuVernay’s new four-part Netflix project, manages to inhabit both subgenres of miniseries at once. As befits the latest offering from the helmer of both an Oscar-nominated film and a Disney-financed tentpole, the cast of When We See Us is packed to the gills with recognizable faces; Michael K. Williams, John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash, Joshua Jackson, and a pre-Admissionsgate Felicity Huffman all pitch into the ensemble. But the subject of When We See Us is much more in keeping with 13th, DuVernay’s 2016 documentary that was also distributed by Netflix. 13th was a sober, stylized exploration of mass incarceration, which DuVernay and her talking heads position as a workaround to the namesake amendment outlawing slavery. When They See Us dramatizes one of that same institution’s most notorious atrocities—the wrongful conviction, and subsequent imprisonment, of the teens collectively known as the Central Park Five: Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise.
Where series like Lorena and The People v. O.J. Simpson reexamine the 1990s through the lens of our evolved perspective on gender, When They See Us takes the same revisionist approach to race. (The brutal assault on white, affluent jogger Trisha Meili took place in April 1989; the two trials of the black and Hispanic teenagers wrongfully accused of the rape occurred in August and December 1990.) At the time, the media and public figures—most notably, a then-only-regionally-famous Donald Trump—seized on the racist narrative of rabid, subhuman predators run amok in a city plagued by drugs and crime. Such collective hysteria created the conditions for a group of children, just 14 to 16 years old at the time, to be convicted for a heinous crime without any physical evidence, the prosecution’s cases based only on coerced and conflicting statements extracted under duress.
The so-called Five have since been exonerated, though not before most of them had already served their time. In 2002, serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed while already serving a life sentence for a different offense. Reyes was apparently motivated by a chance encounter with Five member Korey Wise in 2001, a coincidence so cinematic viewers might assume DuVernay and her cowriters made it up. (They did not, though the jailhouse brawl depicted between the two men has much less basis in fact.) The Five then had their convictions retroactively vacated by New York’s district attorney, and in 2014, a newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio presided over a $41 million settlement of the Five’s civil suit. Technically, the city never admitted wrongdoing, but the amount nonetheless reflected what had come to be accepted fact: The Five were victims of prejudice, paranoia, and other social forces beyond their control, and society owed them a debt.
When They See Us uses the power of stardom and the reach of streaming to enshrine this perspective in narrative form. The compressed run of the series, even with each episode running 70 to 90 minutes apiece, means there’s no time for a slow-burn dirge about individuals caught up in incentive structures, à la David Simon epics like Show Me a Hero. When They See Us is a concentrated, blunt-force dose of rage and sorrow, with little interest in showing when it can instead have one of its characters spell their feelings out. “You left a child unaccompanied by a guardian or a lawyer with these men in this room for hours,” Sharone Salaam (Aunjanue Ellis), mother of 15-year-old Yusef (Ethan Herisse), hisses at Huffman’s unfazed Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor spearheading the investigation. “Shame on you!” Later, another lawyer patiently schools Fairstein in her own misconduct: “While you were writing crime novels, Kevin, Antron, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey were serving time for crimes they didn’t commit.”
Fairstein becomes a telling example of DuVernay’s approach. It’s made clear that the character sees herself as a passionate defender of women, but we see little of her professional life outside of the jogger case. Instead, she’s presented as a two-dimensional villain, an avatar of white feminism who labels her targets “animals” and “thugs” while retrofitting the facts to fit her predetermined conclusion. More nuance wouldn’t and shouldn’t excuse Fairstein and her colleagues’ unadulterated bias, but it could help modern audiences understand how her self-image squared with her actions. DuVernay chooses to focus on the Five over their persecutors, as is her prerogative, though it’s possible a slightly extended series wouldn’t have to make that choice.
When They See Us is much less interested in systems, legal and otherwise, than the individual lives affected by them. DuVernay doesn’t want viewers to understand the facts of the case so much as she wants us to feel their impact. Sometimes, this priority works to the show’s detriment—particularly in its first half, which covers the Five’s arrest, interrogation, and trial. The sight of children being tortured by grown men who refuse to recognize them as such is harrowing. Often, though, it seems as if DuVernay is waging a rhetorical battle that’s already been won. This isn’t an obscure case buried by history, or even a high-profile one whose legacy has gone unquestioned. The Central Park Five have already become a symbol of law enforcement and scapegoating run amok, making headlines as recently as the 2016 presidential election, when Trump’s full-page New York Times ad pushing for the death penalty became supporting evidence for his bigotry. Sure enough, a too-cute reference to Trump’s presumably short-lived fame is written directly into the script.
But as When They See Us moves from the highly publicized verdicts to their not-so-publicized aftermaths, it starts to have its desired effect. The third episode follows four of the five through prison into their rough readjustment to a world they’ve never inhabited as adults, let alone felons. The fourth focuses on Wise, whose story stands out as by far the most tragic in a field of stiff competition. Wise was never detained against his will, but voluntarily went into the station to look after his friend Yusef; 16 at the time, he then became the only defendant sentenced as an adult, sent to Rikers Island instead of juvenile detention. As each timeline flashes forward, DuVernay reveals a brilliant bit of casting. The younger actors are already expertly, and pointedly, chosen to look like actual children in the way so many fictional teenagers do not, underscoring their vulnerability. Yet Wise, the only member of the Five not to be acknowledged as a child in the eyes of the law, is also the only one to be portrayed by the same actor when he enters prison as when he leaves it. Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight) sells the aging process while also retaining Korey’s naivete, even through years of abuse and stints in solitary confinement. The idea of Korey’s life hinging on a single, fateful decision to join his friends in the park is reiterated far too many times; still, the empathy it inspires is genuine.
The passage of time also plays up the gradations of privilege that can exist even within false imprisonment. Yusef’s mother knows to threaten Fairstein with an embarrassing call to the Times to get her son out of custody; Antron’s father gets manipulated into urging his son to confess out of the mistaken impression police will cut him a deal. Confinement only makes these disparities worse. Yusef’s faith earns him a peer group in prison, and after release, he quickly marries and finds a steady job. Korey, his onetime protector, is left without a support system, his mother unable to visit and his trans sister murdered while he’s on the inside. As Antron struggles to form a relationship and Raymond stares down a lack of employment prospects, When They See Us turns into a story about the hurdles the incarcerated face, whether or not they committed the crimes they’re sentenced for. That’s because, after the spotlight faded and the cameras turned elsewhere, the Five became just a few inmates among many.
When They See Us may not tell its audience much about the Central Park Five case they don’t already know. It does, however, tell us more about the Five themselves. The series is best when depicting how its subjects’ lives unfolded in the wake of the cataclysm that came to define them. Much of it is devastating, though not in the unrelenting way of a reenactment meant to prove a point. There are moments of connection and joy, too—pieces of dignity that headlines and parole boards can’t erase. People are far more than their lowest moments, and When They See Us gains depth the further it gets from those of its characters.