When They See Us
“Don’t ever think you’re alone. I’m walking through this with you. You cry, I cry. You mad, I’m mad. You scared, I’m scared. You free, I’m free.”
After the successful run of true crime drama series like Making A Murderer, Wild Wild Country and Delhi Crime, Netflix is back with yet another thumping crime drama When They See Us. Interestingly, this is created, co-written and all the four episodes are directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th, A Wrinkle In Time).
Shot in a chronologically-ordered docudrama-styled format, it highlights the New York’s Central Park jogger case which occurred on the night of 19th April, 1989. It became one of the most publicised cases which led to jail terms for the wrongly accused five black American teenagers.
The only known and major star in the series was Vera Farmiga- the prosecutor representing the state. Yet, four episodes down the line nearly all the recurring characters stand out for one of the most collaborative and sublime performances put together for a miniseries.
The accused African-American teenagers Kevin, Anton, Yusef and Korey and Hispanic American teenager Raymond are put on trial for the assault and rape of a 28-year old white-skinned investment banker Trisha Meili. The show quickly highlights the pulse of the white-dominated society where at one end there are protests against the framing of innocents and on the other side, the powerful industrialist Donald Trump is advertising for a death penalty for all the accused. The series questions the legitimacy of the facts, it asks its viewers to put the whole system on trial. It questions the failure of the press and media to investigate the incident and ask the right questions. Instead, the system turned a blind eye and chose to trust the false and contradicting narrative offered by the police department.
Even though it’s one full story stretched over four episodes, each of the episodes has its own theme which comes to an end thereby progressing the overall narrative. With the advancement of story, the show and the characters never steers from its defined goal. A very cohesive narration covering the events after the incident, during the trials, and aftermath is one of the most important features where the series excels.
As it is visible in DuVernay’s Selma and 13th, she doesn’t shy away from highlighting the failures of a white majority-ruled society and government. She highlights how the young teenagers were coerced by the police department officials to give a statement of their choice. The blunders of the investigation process coupled by the framing of the accused due to hatred and racism, all in the name of authority and false promises serve as a warning for all.
The teenagers who were jailed for a crime they did not commit are the victims of the biased legal system, a system which is anxious to solve a crime against white woman and prove its credibility.
Each of the characters has their own innate struggle. The psychological aspects take a toll on the character- moments when the viewers become uncomfortable with the harsh realities.
The police, the lawyers, the defendants, the parents have their own thoughts and plans.. Unfortunately, in this story, the defendants paid the unfair and the highest price.
This show focuses equally on the aftermath- an aspect which is usually left untouched in a courtroom or a crime drama. After all, it’s these victims of the justice system who went through another soul-torturing journey in jail. It’s the never-ending pain of parents who saw their innocent and juvenile childrens’ dream and the defining part of life taken up by the flawed system. These parents wonder if it’s them who have failed their kids and not the society, the law or the government. It gets heavier as time passes. The show addresses the most discomfited questions which affects the integrity, status and the future of the victims. How will society react? Once these teenagers return after serving time, will the society ever accept them? Will society accept them as criminals or victims? How will the parents pursue them while living in this cocoon of guilt? How will these teenagers see their own past moving forward? Are they criminals of the society or the victims of a corrupt system?
How drastically people’s life can change after an incident- this show will serve as a haunting reminder in the time to come. Each episode, minute by minute breaks your spirit, it breaks your trust in society, it darkens your soul. And at last you are left with the only choice of sticking to the people who you love and vice-versa. It’s these meticulously crafted intimate, affectionate and heartachingly painful moments the spotlights the bond between the helpless parents and their innocent offspring against a giant white-dominated system. It is these aspects where Ava DuVernay struck gold with the series.
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If HBO’s Chernobyl was all about the faults which exists in our law and society, then When They See Us is about the fear of the law and abuse of it by the ones in power. When They See Us is Ava DuVernay’s finest hour where she stands as the most audacious champion of representing the victimization of black Americans on screen.