In 1989, a white female jogger was brutally assaulted, raped and left for dead in New York’s Central Park. Trisha Meili was one of 1,800 killed in the city that year, but her case drew worldwide attention. Five black and Latino boys were quickly charged with the attack and there was an outpouring of condemnation: Donald Trump even took out a full-page advert in all four of New York’s newspapers calling for the boys to be executed. A four-part Netflix series now dramatises the boys’ case, and it’s one of the best things you’ll watch.
When They See Us begins just before the fateful events of 1989. We see the boys talking to girls, dreaming about being sports stars, playing trumpets. Whether as curious bystanders or exuberant youngsters, the five make up part of a group of around thirty who head to the park to lark around and cause low-level trouble on the day Trisha Meili is attacked. Perfectly scored by that year’s Public Enemy classic Fight the Power, the scene ends when the police show up and several of the boys are arrested – mainly just for being there. When Meili was found close to death in another part of the park, the investigating detectives quickly decided that the boys they had in custody were the culprits.
We see how each of the five finds themselves in the frame for the assault. Either in the wrong place at the wrong time, or scooped up in a racially-profiled net that went out in the days after the assault. The story of all five boys is tragic but somehow the plight of Korey Wise (played by Jharrel Jerome from Moonlight) is even more so. When his friend Yusef Salaam (played by Ethan Herisse) is stopped and taken to the precinct by the police, Wise goes with his friend so that he isn’t alone. He is a few months older than his mate and has just turned sixteen. This means that he goes through the US justice system as an adult.
It may be set thirty years ago, but the racially presumptions of US police seems every bit as relevant now as then. One in seventeen white boys born in 2001 can expect to go to prison: a pretty big figure by British standards. But for Latino boys it’s one in six and for black boys, one in three. The way the boys are forced, beaten and tricked into confessing despite all of the contrary evidence foreshadows how many accused are pressured to plead guilty to lessen their sentences in present day USA. This is so great, in part, due to the Meili case: the anger helped inspire the 1994 Crime Bill, which saw the numbers of people incarcerated in the US increase exponentially (and with it, the racial bias of that system).
We see the trial of the four juveniles, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson (played as a very young looking 14 year old by Asante Blackk), Antron McCray (played by Jovan Adepo) and Raymond Santana (played by Marquis Rodriguez). We see how the USA’s pathological mistreatment of young black and Latino boys makes a fair trial a pipe dream. Young black boys are seen (and treated) as older than they actually are. When you add a rich white female rape victim, all of the old tropes about protecting white women from the sexual advances of black males come bubbling up. Their time in jail time is featured, but not too much: the series focuses much more on what it’s like for them after they are released. Life on New York’s projects is hard but when you are a felon you walk a tightrope between surviving and winding up back behind bars. The four manage with differing levels of success. Santana (played as an adult by Freddy Miyares) ends up succumbing to their lures of the streets and finds himself back behind inside.
As you might expect from the woman who brought us Selma and 13th, Ava Duvernay’s series is both powerful and enlightening, drawing on her recurring theme of the brutalising nature of the US penal system, as told in her earlier, stunning 13th. Wise and Jerome’s performance are key to the drama’s success. By telling the story completely through the eyes of the five accused, it succeeds in humanising the demonised teenagers, preventing them from becoming just another political headline. Britain has a different history with race and so from this side of the pond the popularity of “Black Lives Matter” can sometimes seem strange. In America though, there has long been a particular issue with the apparent disposability of young black lives. When They See Us shows us how this feels from the inside.