Wired, June 12, 2019: The central park five are finally being “seen.” That matters
The Netflix miniseries When They See Us from Ava DuVernay is excruciating to watch—an unflinching look at the human wreckage left behind after New York City’s police, prosecutors, courts, and news media insisted that five young Harlem residents pay the price for a crime they didn’t commit: the rape and near-murder of a jogger in Central Park in the spring of 1989.
I was tempted to turn off the TV about 15 minutes in—and might have if my wife, an immigrant committed to understanding our country for what it is, hadn’t insisted on continuing. Many of my friends stopped early on or never started to begin with.
That title, When They See Us, was a conscious decision by DuVernay not to use the familiar shorthand for the case, “the Central Park Five.” That was the name of a 2012 documentary that described the mania to convict these five—Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—who spent six to 13 years in prison before Matias Reyes, a murderer and serial rapist serving 33 years to life for other crimes, came forward to confess. His was the only DNA found at the crime scene.
For DuVernay’s miniseries, there would be no shorthand, no attempt to make the horror somehow familiar or routine. This time, the five young men wouldn’t simply be championed and vindicated, they would be seen. And when truly seen, Salaam, McCray, Richardson, Santana, and Wise become fully human. Though considering the instinct of many white viewers like myself to look away, a slightly different title—If They See Us—might also have made sense.