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  • Kolby Mac

When They See Us

Fear is the greatest threat to our way of life. Greatest civil threat, American threat, worldwide threat. The inescapable truth is, fear’s inevitable! Fear begets hate and the only way to combat hate is with love. Love is scary though. Love requires you to put yourself out there and apply risk. Open your heart to someone or something else and choose to accept it regardless of the outcome. You grow in love because of understanding for that person or thing. The strong affection that intensifies. But to get to that point you must fight fear. Fear of something different. Fear of the unknown. Fear of whatever it may be.

I was literally afraid to watch the new Netflix series “When They See Us”.

It’s a weird statement on its face.

How can someone be afraid of watching a show? I can respect those who don’t want to watch a horror film out of fear of being afraid, but I was afraid to watch a drama because I knew it would open some wounds that haven’t healed emotionally. Spur a dialogue that I felt wouldn’t be as rewarding as I’d like It to. I didn’t want to watch another African American Horror Story. You see, my fear is real, but my thinking was narrow. It’s that thinking that allows some individuals to close their eyes and pretend the story that’s before us either isn’t real or never happened.

I’m thankful that I chose to combat my fear and was willing to not only allow this story to consume me emotionally but inspire me socially. I have a responsibility to myself, my family and my people to be an advocate for social justice, peace and understanding. Regardless of how difficult a watch, “When They See Us” was; what Ava DuVernay championed is a deeply impactful and important American tale that every citizen should experience.

“When They See Us” is the all too real, all too true American story of a group of teenage boys, illegally questioned, grossly prosecuted, unjustly jailed, unfairly condemned, and later exonerated of a heinous crime they didn’t commit.

The strongest element to this series success is the relentlessly gripping story. Ava DuVernay passionately goes deeper. She explores not only the complexities of the case, but how these boys who would grow to become men were more than their case. They were kids. Playful. Exuberant. Full of life and opportunity. Even in the midst of 1989 Harlem and all the baggage that came with growing up black then; she celebrates these young men. The choice of telling this story with an easy 4-part structure allows the audience to move and experience as much as we can in an appropriate way with our protagonists.

I have a deep New York bias, and I’m damn proud of it.

New York is the greatest city in the world and a place I have the pleasure of calling home. Ava brings this city to life and glorifies all its beauty and its blemishes. The camerawork and cinematography throughout the entire series is stylized and exudes the freshness of NY. The Flyness of NY. All the flavor that makes the city what it is reflected by the people and their culture that live in it. The series is gorgeous. The sound design and score are amazing. The sights and sounds of NY are too accurate and we see the vibrancy of New Yorkers with a soundtrack representative of late 80’s and 90’s culture. We travel through the projects of Harlem, the precincts of NY, the boardwalk of Coney Island. “When They See Us”, is what I like to call “Tourist Cinema”.

NY is the back drop to a night, like many others in my city’s past that will live in infamy. Central Park is equally as unique. The preservation of this staple in the heart of the most metropolitan of cities is a true treasure that’s sprawling and alive and open to everyone. Even, as broken up and divided the boroughs and neighborhoods of New York are, Central Park is for everybody. Families comfortably picnicked. Kids gleefully played. Gangs unfortunately congregated, and crimes ashamedly were perpetrated on its grounds.

A young female business professional was out jogging one night and was later found brutally beaten and raped. A task force hell bent on making an example, accosted dozens of black children the next day determined to find the assailant.

Unfortunately, at any cost!

This series could’ve been just about this well publicized and infamous court case. Ava examines more than the case; she examines the characters, the institutions, and looks to expose the justice for what is rather than what it’s supposed to be.

There’s Justice and then there’s Just-us.

Justice is the idea and administration of the law or authority maintaining it. Just-us, is the illumination that Justice isn’t meant for all of us, just some of us. If Justice is the administration of the law then we must recognize the law is made up and governed by its people, thing is not all its people were allowed to have a say on the law.

When watching this show, you will ask angrily why and how could this have happened? Justice vs Just-us could explain why, but I’m not going to be naïve and say it’s the sole reason. There’s many layers to what’s wrong in our society and I’m glad Ava plants the seed to let the story inspire the conversation that provokes thought on others and lets this series focus on much more at the same time.

Part one, we get introduced to these children, their families, their lives. Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), and Korey Wise were kids between the age of 14 and 16.

I was Kevin. I was Antron. I was Yusef. I was Raymond. I was Korey.

I had the same prospects of education, exploring my talents, exploring romance, hanging out late and yeah, even with the wrong crowd. I wasn’t perfect, and I wasn’t innocent, and neither were these boys. What we see in part one, are victims who were exploited and coerced and could do almost nothing to stop it. This episode will elicit some of the strongest emotions out of you. You’ll be uncomfortable. You’ll be angry. You’ll also be awakened not just to injustices but to engaging characters that connect with you.

These young actors put together some of the most incredible performances on the small screen you’ll ever see. Their range and vulnerability hit you through the entire series. The acting is exceptional. The supporting characters that weave in and of the narrative serve an honest depiction of a dark time in NY’s history that feels as if we’re living it as were watching.

Somehow as part 2 begins, I found my anger transforming into hope. I’d be lying if I said I knew the ins and outs of this case. I only knew the outcome. Though I allowed myself to become hopeful as these kids, after being implicated and awaiting prosecution characters are introduced that you end up cheering for. Ava and the writers on this project, pen a script that is not what it seems. I saw complexities in many characters I didn’t think I would. You know who your rooting for and against but as the cast grows and man it really does grow, you never lose sight of the boy’s journey, but get invested in the people we hope will become heroes. Joshua Jackson delivers and inspires as one of the defending attorneys. Vera Farmiga finally does a project in 2019 that I’m proud to see her leave an impression on. She was incredible. You’d expect for her to be one sided, but her nuanced performance had me questioning her character throughout the series, both good and bad. She questioned the series of events, she challenged her team, and even in victory you sit in her confliction. There were characters you thought were on our side but circumstances had them change and we explore the human elements to betrayal and a different side of fatherhood that doesn’t make it on screen often.

Part 3 goes beyond the case and reminded me and may have revealed to the audience that all but 1 of these teens served their sentence and was released. With most news, stories come and go and for as notorious as this case was, for some we may have thought the overturned convictions happened while these then men were still in jail. It didn’t. Ava spends time with these men, robbed of their childhood labeled as sexual predators trying to acclimate to a world that could be unfair to young black and brown boys, but can be downright vicious to grown black and brown men. She puts on a show, moving from the case to their lives again and detailing the struggle they have reconnecting to family, friends, finding work, and balancing it all while combatting a crippling probation system set up for many to fail. We get to know and experience full story arcs with Antron (Jovan Adepo), Kevin (Justin Cunnigham), Yusef (Chris Chalk) and Ray (Freddy Miyares). These adult actors embody a beautiful sorrow that was handed off like a baton in a relay. How they loved, how they fought, how they moved on.

The last leg of the relay is where it all comes together, your fastest runner either catching up, or in the case for this series blowing everyone away. We spend most of this final episode with Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome). We follow him from teenager to man, beaten, belittled, broken down, but never knocked out. Jharrel Jerome delivers one of the strongest Emmy cases I’ve ever seen. Having this actor portray both his young and older self was an excellent choice and the right one because of this his commitment and range.

Shout out to the makeup team that was able to keep him honesty childlike and patiently transition him to a man in his 30’s. The depths to which Jerome travels is astonishing. His choices were powerful, his voice was compelling and to think that what we saw is not the full scope of what Korey Wise endured in real life, is shocking. This episode is incredibly cinematic and a frustrating well of emotions as we get the vindication we sought, but it feels bitter sweet.

What’s the cost of a life?

How does a person get back time? I don’t think there’s a number you can put on that. There should be satisfaction with these men’s exoneration, yet you want more. You want the police who blurred and crossed lines to get their comeuppance. You wanted the prosecuting attorneys to stand front and center and admit their shame for playing their part. You want Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) to face these men and beg for their forgiveness and be punished for her disgustingly ardent disregard for the oath she swore to uphold.

To this day she boasts in her infamy and rejects that these men are innocent.

We don’t get that retribution, but we do get an opportunity afforded to us by Ava and the team of writers to learn from these men. Like Ava, I’ve refused to call them in this review by what the print media referred to them as. It’s the labels, the words we choose that help insight fear. These men are more than what parts of this broken world see us as.

That’s the exploration. Her choice to title this miniseries “When They See Us”, is to highlight where we were and where we hope to be. The pursuit to change fear into hope, hate into love. The love of our fellow man, who may and will not always look like you. Talk like you. Act like you, but maybe love like you.

“When They See Us” is the most powerful miniseries I have ever watched. Its heart wrenching and infuriating. Not in its quality but in its disturbingly true story. A True American Horror Story for a lot of us, but an important one to watch and share. Ava DuVernay’s genius and collaboration presents a cinematically stunning, masterclass in acting, direction, writing, cinematography, score and production design. Every filmmaking element at work is perfect. It’s the beauty of “If Beale Street Could Talk” with the terror and poignancy of “12 years a Slave”.


Director: Ava DuVernay

Writers: Ava DuVernay, Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, Michael Starrbury

Starring: Jharrel Jerome, Caleel Harris, Asante Blackk, Marquis Ropdriguez, Ethan Herisse

Vera Farmiga, Felicity Huffman, John Leguizamo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Burnbury, Niecy Nash, Michael Kenneth Williams, Famke Janssen, William Sadler, Joshua Jackson, Blair Underwood, Aurora Perrineau, Storm Reid

Freddy Miyares , Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Justin Cunningham,

Run Time: 296 mins

Rating: TV-MA


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