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When They See Us (Netflix Mini-Series)

In 1989, 5 young African American and Latino boys, ages 14-16, were accused of beating and raping a white jogger in Central Park New York. After serving between 6 and 13 years in prison, they were exonerated after a fellow prisoner serving time with one of the five confessed to the crime.  In this Netflix mini-series, Ana DuVernay provides a perfect complement to the Sarah Burns documentary Central Park Five from 2012; DuVernay presents the story completely from the viewpoint of the 5 teenagers. She takes us up close and personal into what it was like for these boys to be coerced into confessions with the promise that they could go home to their mothers and what it was like for them in prison and the transition back to post-prison life. It is not always an easy film to watch; the scenes of interrogations and how prosecutors manufactured the cased against them are powerful and infuriating. It is, however, essential viewing as a window into the operation of a justice system that doesn’t assume a person, particularly one who is not White and who is poor, is innocent. Bryan Stevenson, who wrote Just Mercy, details in his book the impact of the practice of sentencing young boys to long-term (and life without parole) prison stays; the story in this film tells us clearly why this is a problem. One of the most striking scenes shows a clip from our current president who took out an 85K advertisement supporting the death penalty for the boys (and who still maintains they are guilty, even after evidence clearly exonerated them). The final installment, which I found the most powerful, is devoted to the story of Korey, who was 16 at the time and only went to the police station to support his friend and was swept into the coercion. He was sentenced as an adult and sent to Rikers Island. Jharrel Jerome, who plays Korey both as a teenager and adult, has one of the most completely absorbing and compelling and award-worthy performances in the film. Big thumbs up for a film that is incredibly well-acted and challenging to watch and one that everyone should see.  It always keeps us drawn into and focused on what the legal and prison system looked and felt like from the boys’ lived experiences. (2019; 5 Stars)

About Gary Burkholder

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