'When They See Us' Confronts The Broken Reality Of The American Prison System

Ava DuVernay's latest feature examines the Central Park Five and how we play into the prison-industrial complex.


With the current state of racial discourse in America, we've all become more attuned to the prison-industrial complex. This isn't limited strictly to prisons becoming private institutions owned by corporations, though that is a part of it, but the ingrained racist stereotyping that gets called to mind with the word "felon." Ava DuVernay laid out the foundations for what's become a new type of slavery with her Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, and she extrapolates on it further with the miniseries on the Central Park Five titled When They See Us.

In 1989, five young men, all under the age of 18, were arrested and charged with the rape and attempted murder of a white female jogger in Central Park. Despite a complete lack of evidence and series of ethical violations in how the boys suspected were interrogated, they were all convicted and sentenced to prison time. The group, dubbed the "Central Park Five" were eventually exonerated (and received a nice settlement from the city of New York) for their false arrest and imprisonment.

The case is detailed in the magnificent documentary, The Central Park Five, but When They See Us goes beyond the boys' case and focuses on what DuVernay laid out within 13th. In a world where black and brown people are regularly caught up within the prison system, it is up to us on the outside to fight for them. Unfortunately, the stereotypes we know about prisoners stick with us longer than we'd like. 

The film illustrates this theory as the trial unfolds and once four of the boys are released from their respective detention centers. When they're initially arrested, the boys are compliant, desperate to avoid getting in trouble because they are aware of the defined yet unspoken relationship between people of color and the police. When Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse) is picked up by the police, he goes without complaint, and his best friend, Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome) tries to do the right thing by going with him as well. During interrogation, without parents present or their rights acknowledged, the boys are honest and forthright, saying they didn't do it. They attempt desperately to avoid confrontation through truth and honesty, not knowing the corrupt politics that the police are working with: to find a suspect at all costs. 

Even the parents fall into the trap of trying to be kind and compliant with the police to avoid further issues. Bobby McCray (Michael Kenneth Williams) arrives to help out his son, Antron (Caleel Harris) during questioning. Despite the knowledge of his son's harsh interrogation, Bobby tells his son to lie and tell the cops what they want to hear. Later, under questioning during the boys' trial, Bobby explains that he understands the system and wanted his son to avoid getting into trouble. As he sees it, if telling a white lie ⏤ in this case admitting to being in the proximity of a rape ⏤ helps his son avoid jail time, what's the problem?

Image from Netflix.
Image from Netflix.

DuVernay's documentary exposes how this mentality ends up shooting people of color in the foot. In many instances, getting a suspect to take a plea, even if they didn't do it, still brands them as a "felon." This ultimately becomes a lifelong sentence. As we see, Bobby's mentality is to fall back on acknowledging fault. Even if his son didn't commit this crime, the implication is that he might eventually get in trouble. So why not play ball now? The sad fact is that Bobby McCray is presented as a man who knows the game is rigged when it comes to black men entering the prison system, but he willingly places his son within the same trap, leading to resentment between father and son in the film's later installments. 

Once the group is eventually released from prison, they face discrimination that comes with being in prison ⏤ from employers refusing to hire them, to being fired for the simplest reasons. Even worse, their families, despite knowing what they've gone through, fall into similar modes of thought. Raymond Santana (Freddy Miyares) moves back in with his father after being released only to face an unfeeling stepmother who seeks to remind him everyday that he's a rapist.

The other released men try to have personal relationships and move on but it's impossible. One tries to go on a date only to have her respond that he's a "felon" with total derision. For DuVernay, it's one thing to be imprisoned for something they didn't do, but it's nothing compared to having the word felon stamped on them. They did their time, but society refuses to let them forget what they already know. And the bitter irony is that the Central Park Five were eventually proven to be innocent all along. This is at the center of When They See Us. The story isn't just about how the Central Park Five were railroaded, but also how the entire system unjustly labels innocent men of color. 

When They See Us takes a multilayered approach to looking at both the Central Park Five case and the need for prison reform. It isn't enough to tell this story, so DuVernay casts her net wider and examines how thousands of men face discrimination because of the word "convict." It's about more than just one person; we need to see them all.