The upcoming Netflix miniseries When They See Us knows you think you know the story of the “Central Park Five.” That was the label given to five teens following their arrest for allegedly being the perpetrators behind a brutal rape in the New York City park in April 1989. As the crime created a media frenzy, becoming a flashpoint for black-on-white crime, the teens were vilified and eventually convicted. On paper — and in many people’s minds — they remain criminals in the cultural imagination. But as the Ava DuVernay project makes clear in its first full trailer, what you know is the lie they told you. “They” being the media, the cops, and perhaps even the entire American justice system.
DuVernay’s four-part miniseries hopes to redress that narrative and tell the stories of Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Jr., Kevin Richardson, and Korey Wise anew. Chronicling not just their arrests, their trials, and convictions but also their family lives and their decades-long fight for justice, When They See Us hopes to put their humanity first. With its polaroid-like aesthetic of a late-80s New York City and an enviable cast which includes Joshua Jackson, Vera Farmiga, Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams, Dascha Polanco and John Leguizamo (as Raymond Santana Jr’s father), the project looks to do for the Central Park Five trial what The People vs. OJ Simpson did for that equally controversial mismanagement of justice in the early 90s.
The first trailer for the series focuses mostly on its young cast and the immediate events following the night of April 19, 1989, with only a hint of its 25-year span (the show will take us all the way to 2002 when they were exonerated and 2014 when they settled with the city of New York). While the teaser focused only on the young boys, this more extended first look shows us its sprawling ensemble. Images of the teens aghast at the brutal interrogation techniques at the hand of the cops, lawyers sensationalizing their claims in court, and heated prison exchanges are juxtaposed with tender moments of a father caressing his boy’s cheeks, mothers advocating for their sons, and protestors fighting for justice.
“Why they doing us like this?” a young Kevin (Asante Blackk) asks while they’re all being held for questioning in a slate blue interrogation room. “What other way they ever do us?” a young Raymond (Saturday Church‘s Marquis Rodriguez) fires back, summing up a frustration that many a young black and brown boy in the United States has grown up with — proof that When They See Us remains depressingly timely.
That’s why, in keeping with the miniseries’ social purpose, Participant Media, in collaboration with Color Of Change, Vera Institute of Justice, Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College, and The Opportunity Agenda, among others, will launch a social impact campaign aimed at supporting the work of the criminal justice reform movement. The campaign will focus on shifting perceptions of black and brown youth in media coverage and helping prosecutors with new approaches rooted in human dignity and racial equity.
When They See Us premieres on Netflix May 31, 2019.