(Author’s Note: To encourage viewing and discussion from our readers, this review is on the first episode or part of this limited series event. Feel free to chat in the comments or on our social media after going through this strongly recommended cinematic show!)
I wouldn’t say that Ava DuVernay works and deals in the tear-jerky, but her expression of stories does produce drops from one’s eyes. I would rather say her films tug on the heartstrings and then some. That “some”, going the extra mile, reminds us that we still have heartstrings at all. That we still have more to give and receive. Werner Herzog calls what he’s after an “ecstatic truth”, an interpretation beyond the literal and logical even, but altogether still honest and representative. Ava DuVernay, I would say with her work, especially When They See Us: Part 1, is after a “righteous truth” where direct purpose and bold emotion draw out the meaning behind it all.
When They See Us tells the tale of the Central Park Five, young boys of color between 14 and 16 who were coerced into confessing to and convicted of raping a blonde white woman in late 80s NYC. It would take over a decade before being exonerated and released, during which they experienced the full thrust of the “justice” system in America. Following up from her documentary/essay film The 13th – which tied slavery to our modern prison industrial complex – Ava isn’t satisfied with hitting bullet points of who, where, when, and why of the case. This is solely and clearly about the treatment, whether innocent (and they were) or guilty, of five kids who “fit the description”. Five kids seen as “animals”. Five kids, period.
Part 1 concerns itself with the early investigation, the naming of the “suspects”, and the out for blood nature of the police and detectives who, mostly unnamed and mostly white with one or two exceptions, interrogate these children with intimidation, brute force, manipulation, and coaching. By the end of the episode, when we see a perp walk from each of the five, the officers involved are smoking cigarettes in a light haze, almost sensual afterglow like atmosphere. It defies the betrayal of these kids, which is what we’re feeling at the moment, but when we cut to the cops, it’s them off the clock, job done.
Ava’s depiction, in this episode, feels like the start of a descent through and hopefully an ascent from the hell these boys are being led towards. That they were forced into lying for. She lays it in thick, but in impressively nuanced ways. At the opening, each kid joins a larger group of young men into Central Park, out of curiosity it seems. Upon arrival, we hear Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” play. The year is 1989 when Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing came out. Setting the tone from this point, police act on this “unlawful gathering” pretty aggressively. Then, the title comes up: WHEN THEY SEE US.
The perp walk, perhaps the most spectacle-like scene of the episode, features the song “Falling Leaves” from Claire Maguire. It’s a damning piece of work, seeing the flash blue and red lights, watching these boys wearing confusion and thrust upon shame in their eyes and on their shoulders and all over their skin. I couldn’t help but think of Law & Order: SVU and how often the “good guy” detectives will assume judgment from the get-go. They’re only human, I guess. In When They See Us, they can be inhuman too. At what point is a 15-year-old suddenly an adult? An identification technicality? The point when white becomes black? And why treat people this way anyway, especially middle-schoolers? Profiling and training? Unresolved anger?
At the heart of some of this vile bile is Felicity Huffman’s performance of Linda Fairstein, who oversaw the investigation with a too personal vigor. Blinded by rage, she ruthlessly finds ways to adjust the evidence to fit her argument that “they’re all guilty.” Shown as a perversion of the system as we’d like to believe it can be, When They See Us: Part 1 works not just as an episodic event but a film all by itself. Ava DuVernay has set the stage for something that upends and confronts our understanding of justice and even the glasses with which we see and judge others.
In my notes, I wrote “infuriating” in bold. “Just kids, dammit” too. I think Ava’s righteous truth isn’t just after what’s behind it all, but the meaning in front of our faces too. Press play and let the clock resent for the next episode to come on. It feels all too necessary and important.
EPISODE RATING: 5 / 5
LIMITED SERIES RATING: TBD
When They See Us is streaming now on Netflix. Catch all four parts and join us in a conversation!
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews