New-Release Tuesday: When They See Us

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Talk about using your clout.

In the wake of Selma, award-winning producer/director Ava DuVernay signed with Disney to direct the mega-budget A Wrinkle in Time… about as mainstream a project as one could imagine.

As probably the whole world knows by now, she has followed up that studio project with When They See Us, the Netflix mini-series about The Central Park Five, black and Latin teenagers wrongly accused and convicted of raping a jogger in New York’s Central Park. The title, of course, invokes the specter of racial injustice: a presumption of some kind of guilt, a rush to judgment when the kids were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and classic police coercion of the powerless and fearful.

I’ve been on the wrong end of that stick myself, and have also seen it played out in several jury rooms in Seattle’s King County Superior Court. When things wrong, they go wrong very quickly, and those in the hot seat are at a severe disadvantage against those who know how to “work the system.” Sadly, those who have that knowledge are most often not the least bit interested in justice; they are instead more interested in pats on the back from colleagues, or a good job performance appraisal. Sometimes, they are, yes, even motivated by bigotry.

DuVernay’s film takes us through this particular story in four segments.

The first introduces us quickly (and well) to the five boys and their families, and then details the events of the night of April 19, 1989–how the boys came to be in Central Park, what transpired there, and how the boys were apprehended. Then, in the wee hours of April 20, and through the day, how the case transformed from stern parental warnings about hoodlums running amok into a fevered determination to get rape confessions at any cost.

The second episode takes us through the legal morass which follows in the wake of the “confessions,” ending in convictions for all five boys.

The third episode deals with the eventual release of the four juveniles in the case.

As gripping as episodes 1 and 2 were, the fourth episode is the real payoff for the series as we learn the story of 16-year-old Korey Wise, who was tried, convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated as an adult. 12 remarkable years later, he is finally freed as the truth of the rape comes to light.

As a courtroom drama, the film does not succeed all that well. By hewing reasonably closely to the facts of the case, the script does itself no favors as it fails to make a lot of sense out of the two separate trials that resulted from prosecutorial damage-control and internal struggles in the defense teams. The first two episodes nonetheless are extremely effective in portraying relatable everyday people caught up in events beyond their experience and control. In many, many ways, this is the real “Story of Us,” if you get my drift. And it is also far more genuinely frightening, and genuine, than the shocky shtick of Us.

The film struggles mightily in the third episode, however, as the stories of the four juveniles do not really intersect. The need to have different actors portray those four characters as adults also becomes terribly distracting. The result is a difficult-to-watch and not terribly interesting mess for those 70-odd minutes.

Episode 4, however, is a masterwork. Jharrel Jerome portrays both the 16-year-old Korey Wise and his adult counterpart in what is a tour-de-force performance of almost unbelievable proportions. While Jerome certainly held up his end of the story in Episodes 1 and 2, he simply owns this 88 minutes, going through several different character transformations as he not only ages but learns to accept the realities of incarceration, solitary confinement, hopelessness, and, ultimately, turning all that around. In one mind-bending but apparently true encounter, a fellow prisoner commends Wise. “You never gave up hope,” he says, “or faith.” Wow.

Without the seemingly pointless sacrifice of friendship that landed Wise in prison, the truth might never have been known. Hand of fate, maybe? That’s the question you have to ask yourself, and answer. It sure seems that the real Wise has, and the other four of the Five as well, all of whom make appearances in the program’s end credits.

So much to learned here about what it means to be human in America. Check it out.

You can watch When They See Us as part of your Netflix subscription.