The Academy Award-nominated American filmmaker Ava DuVernay was 16-years-old in April 1989 when five teenage boys from Harlem were charged with the brutal attack and rape of a female jogger in New York’s Central Park. DuVernay lived in Los Angeles, on the other side of the country, but the strident reporting and racial overtones of the story, which dominated newspaper headlines and television newscasts, came through clearly: the victim was white, while four of the accused were African-American and the other was Hispanic.
The crime, and the subsequent investigation, rapid arrest and conviction of the five juveniles, complete with confessions, galvanises When They See Us, DuVernay’s compelling new Netflix limited series about the teenagers who would become th
e Central Park Five – a title used to initially identify their crime, and later their innocence. In 2002 the convictions of the five men were vacated, after the actual attacker confessed, and they were subsequently awarded US$41 million in damages after suing the city of New York.
“The subject matter has to reach me in a really personal place if I’m going to marry myself to it for years. I started working on this in 2015, and I really felt this one,” DuVernay says. “The story is an epic tale and there is a lot of tragedy in it, but it ends triumphantly. These men are alive, they’re well, they’re thriving, and justice was served. It’s rare for a story like this to end like this.”
Fresh off a flight back home to Los Angeles, where the 46-year-old has carved out a career in feature films (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time), documentaries (13th), and television series (Queen Sugar), DuVernay talks about the real life events and the five hours she dramatised about it with a mixture of incisive detail and lyrical power. The four episodes of When They See Us have the same sense of intimate experience and historic judgment – it’s a shocking and immersive viewing experience, but one elevated by lyrical reflection.
“It could have easily been a procedural, as true crime dramas are all the rage right now, and it has all the makings of that,” DuVernay says, “but I realised that if I was doing this so the men can be heard, then I should always stay with them. Even on the set, when I had ideas in the middle of shooting a scene, I would remind myself, ‘this is about those boys’.”
“Everything I did, every script, every scene, every cut, every decision about a
costume or location,” she adds, “was about how
to design the story around the perspective of these five men and the people who loved them.”
DuVernay has an activist’s energy and a storyteller’s eye. She’d long followed the case in the media, and in 2015 as her profile blossomed with the success of Selma, her searing examination of Dr Martin Luther King’s 1965 civil rights march in America’s segregated south, she found a tweet sent to her by Raymond Santana jnr, one of the five men in the Central Park Five. “What’s your next film gonna be on?” he asked, with the hashtags #centralpark5 and #fingerscrossed offering his hopeful answer.
The director soon met Santana for dinner, then with what he calls his “brothers”: Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise and Antron McCray. DuVernay instinctively knew that their story had a classic three-act structure, perfect for a film or series, but beyond that she sensed that so much of the work she’d done to date, going back to her 2012 independent feature Middle of Nowhere, was a kind of preparation for telling the complete story of the Central Park Five.
“This is the fourth work I’ve made that looks at different aspects of the criminal justice system,” DuVernay says, “Middle of Nowhere showed me the impact of incarceration on families, while 13th explained the structure of a fixed system and Selma talked about resistance and how to push back. I feel like When They See Us is the sum total of everything I’ve made up to this point.”
That authority comes to bear from the first episode, which identifies the boys and their lives, as well as their presence in Central Park on the night in question, before dashing it upon a police and investigatory system that is institutionally racist.
Felicity Huffman’s Linda Fairstein, the then head of the Sex Crimes Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, is the first to identify the boys as “animals”, and the investigating detectives under her in turn coerce confessions and abridge the legal rights of minors. There is no official dissenting voice, even from African-American or Hispanic police officers.
“What I’m hoping people can see is that once you’re ensnared in the system it is you against the state. When you look at the documents of people trying to defend themselves against alleged crimes in this country, you see that person’s name versus the state,” DuVernay says. “A whole state is putting all its resources against one person, and that person may not have any resources or be educated to their rights. It’s an overwhelming experience and it is designed to overwhelm.”
Shot on location in New York by DuVernay and her long-time collaborator, cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, Arrival), When They See Us folds in the American media’s rush to judgment and the inflammatory actions of then New York property developer Donald Trump, but it always returns to the humanity of those involved. The first episode ends with the boys meeting after they’ve been railroaded, a bittersweet moment of camaraderie and shame.
“Hopefully people can understand that these aren’t criminals, they’re people ensnared in the system where every twist and turn is designed to take you deeper and deeper into an abyss and away from being a part of society,” DuVernay says. “They were human beings – they weren’t a wolf pack, they weren’t animals. It’s the same with so many people behind bars: they have families, dreams and beating hearts.”
When They See Us premieres on Netflix, Friday, May 31.