The loss of childhood is a theme that filmmakers can take forever to delve into. With “When They See Us,” acclaimed director Ava DuVernay tells a crucial story, bringing to life one of the most notorious wrongful conviction cases New York City has ever seen. With the current American political climate and the atmosphere of intolerance around the world, this series could not have come at a better time.
The story begins with the alleged crime itself. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series spans 25 years. It highlights many things, such as their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement with the city of New York reached in 2014. We watch as Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana, all black or Latino teenagers from Harlem, get pulled into the case they have no connection to. We watch blatantly forced and coerced confessions. We watch them grow up too fast to stand a chance of making it out in one piece. And after an infuriating string of events, we watch the five teenagers go to court and end up convicted of a crime they did not commit.
“When They See Us” tells the story of the five teenagers in an unforgiving manner. It harnesses our attention and anger; making us, the viewers, feel the profound injustice of the five boys’ stolen dreams. Throughout the four episodes, DuVernay strikes the right emotional chords, portraying the relentlessness of a broken and racist justice system that shows no mercy towards anyone involved.
Even at the height of its climax, “When They See Us” never loses sight of its thesis that in the eyes of the law in America, people of colour are disproportionately presumed guilty. This series is not going to let you forget how the American justice system and the media have failed—and continue to fail—people of color.
Taken as a whole, there’s a lot to recommend “When They See Us.” This is a film about how the ways in which we are seen affect us. But, it also serves as a rueful reminder that the way we are seen by others should not overpower how we see ourselves.