Television

When They See Us Is Compelling Storytelling, but Not All Rings True

A meticulous re-enactment of the misbegotten prosecution of the Central Park Five gets a lot right.

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When They See Us. Available now on Netflix.

Five years ago, when director Ava DuVerney came under attack for distorting the history of the civil rights movement (particularly in turning Lyndon Johnson into one of the chief villains) in her film Selma, she retorted that she'd never said it was a documentary. "I'm not a historian," DuVerney insisted. "I'm a storyteller."

That may also be the bottom line on DuVerney's controversial new Netflix miniseries on the infamous Central Park Five rape case of the 1980s, When They See Us. As television storytelling, it's little short of brilliant. As history, the verdict is less certain.

The five were black teenagers charged with rape and near-murder of Patricia Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker who went jogging in New York's Central Park on the evening of April 19, 1989. Found by passersby with multiple skull fractures and lacerations so deep that she lost 80 percent of her blood, the jogger lay in a coma for a week before waking up—with no memory at all of what happened to her.

The kids (they were all between 14 and 16) had all been in the park that night, part of a group of several dozen young black men who had been essentially running amok—"wilding," some of them called it, harassing and sometimes doing much worse to bicyclists, joggers and strolling pedestrians.

Questioned at first as potential witnesses, they soon turned into suspects and then defendants, as one by one they admitted to fondling the jogger or watching her be raped, though none admitted raping her himself. Their interrogations were long, rough and conducted without the presence of defense attorneys or even, mostly, parents.

Those confessions—vague and sometimes contradictory—were about the only evidence linking them to the rape. What very little semen was recovered from the jogger's body didn't produce a DNA match to the teenagers. Neither did a more substantial sample found in a discarded sock nearby.

Their trial turned into a hellish exposition of New York City's (and, to some extent, the nation's) frightful racial paranoia: on the white side, fear of untrammeled black savagery; and on the black side, fear of kill-'em-all-let-God-sort-'em-out white policing. And it turned out to be only the opening act of a decade that would continue with the Rodney King riots and the razor-edge divide over the O.J. Simpson verdict.

All five teenagers were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of 5 to 15 years. Except for 16 year old Korey Wise, they were all sent to juvenile facilities and were out in seven years or less. Wise spent 13 years in some of New York's most hard-core prisons, including Attica and Riker's Island—mostly in solitary confinement to avoid beatings from white gangs.

Wise was the only one still serving a rape sentence when a jailed serial rapist (who had also murdered one of his victims), Puerto Rico-born Matias Reyes, came forward in 2002 to confess to the rape of the jogger.

When his DNA matched that of the semen found in the sock, the case against the men began crumbling. The district attorney's office that prosecuted them recommended throwing out their convictions, and the state supreme court complied. Eventually city and state governments settled lawsuits by the five for $41 million, about $1 million per year they served in prison.

This is the story DuVerney—who wrote, directed and produced—tells in When They See Us, and she does it astoundingly well. The chaos of the crime scene, the muddled give and take of the investigation, the complexity of the legal arguments across two trials: Through it all, her narrative never once lurches off the tracks, and her expositional expertise is stunning. No criminology textbook or newspaper investigative series, much less any other film or TV show, has ever more deftly sketched the stacked deck facing men paroled from prison than DuVerney does in a two-minute scene in which a parole officer outlines the Byzantine rules of association for one of the Central Park Five upon his release. The bottom line: Enjoy your time outside, kid, you're almost certainly going back to the joint.

Even more impressive is the way DuVerney follows five principal characters, who age from goofy adolescence to grim, battered adulthood in the course of her tale, never blurring their edges or short-changing their stories, which are relentlessly painful.

One of the most terrifying aspects of When They See Us is that the kids (and, later, the men they turn into) have no one at all they can trust. When terrified Bobby McCray (Michael K. Williams, The Wire) orders his 14-year-old Tron (Caleel Harris, Castle Rock) to sign anything the cops want, is the dad just worried that the cops will otherwise reveal his police record to his boss at work? Or does he sincerely believe that prison is less dangerous than disagreeing with the cops: "They will lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us."

This is the stuff of Kafka by way of Stephen King. But … is it trueCops and prosecutors and the right-wing chattering class have argued furiously that When They See Us is revisionist balderdash—the work of a politically correct Hollywood mob that "thirsts for vengeance against evil spirits," as Ann Coulter puts it with characteristic venom.

To be sure, DuVerney is essentially repeating, unquestioned, the story told by the Central Park Five themselves. Much of it, of course, has been confirmed by events. DAs do not casually vacate hard-won victories in highly publicized cases. Even less easily do local governments fork over $41 million to settle false-imprisonment claims.

And though it's true that prison inmates facing hopelessly long sentences sometimes offer up false confessions to clear buddies or secure favors, Matias Reyes is unquestionably tied to the rape by the match of his semen to that found in the sock at the scene of the rape.

But there's more to When They See Us than the question of guilt or innocence. In DuVerney's view, the New York City criminal justice system didn't just get the Central Park rape case wrong, it actively conspired to convict and imprison five kids it knew were innocent.

The kids were spoon-fed details to include in their confessions. (Cop: "The lady, she was in jogging clothes, right?" Kid nods uncertainly. Cop: "So what was she wearing?" Kid: "Umm, jogging clothes?") When they got details of the rape wrong, they were told to change their stories. When the timeline of events seemed to make it impossible for the kids to have committed the crime, it was rewritten.

The Professor Moriarty directing this conspiracy was, in DuVerney's view, Linda Fairstein, then the head of the Manhattan DA's sex-crime unit and, more recently, a best-selling crime novelist. Fairstein (played by a steely Felicity Huffman, who in real life is getting acquainted with the other side of the criminal justice system) is shown supervising the police investigation from its opening moments, alternating racist rants ("Every young black male who was in that park last night is a suspect!") with rape-culture feminist cant, arguing that it doesn't matter who gets punished for sexual assault as long as somebody does.

When another prosecutor points out that Fairstein's plan to keep quiet about the existence of the sock full of unidentified semen amounts to suppressing evidence— "crossing a line"—Fairstein snaps back, "Where's the line for Patricia?" (Whether DuVerney intended it or not, much of the first two episodes of When They See Us can easily be read as an attack on the overzealous elements of the #metoo movement.)

Fairstein has furiously challenged the way she and the investigation are portrayed in the show, calling it an "outrage" in terms of both tone and factual content. (Most seriously perhaps, she denies supervising the police investigation or even having anything to do with it for the first day.)

I haven't read all the depositions and testimony on the Central Park case and I've no idea if Fairstein's factual claims are correct. But the idea that the police investigation was a fraudulent act of persecution right from the start seems unlikely. The teenagers were first questioned by cops not because they were five random black guys but because witnesses saw them in the park that night, running with the wilding crowd. And the wilders were not just overexuberant children on a lark but a frenetic mob administering beatings to random white people, at least one of whom had to be hospitalized. It made perfect sense for cops to question everybody who was a part of it, even if some of them turned out to be just along for the ride.

There are other annoying and unnecessary bits here and there in When They See Us. One is an absurd preoccupation with Donald Trump, who made some typically stupid and loudmouthed remarks about the Central Park Five while they were awaiting trial. But in 1989, Trump was just a blowhard real-estate hustler, still decades from the presidency or even a reality TV show. He had nothing to do with what happened to the teenagers.

And neither did Al Sharpton, who gets a shoutout near the end of When They See Us as one of the teenagers' champions. Sharpton is mostly famous for his part in promoting a black teenager's phony 1987 claim that she had been kidnapped and sexually abused by a cop and a prosecutor. If Sharpton really was a friend of the Central Park Five, they certainly wouldn't have needed any enemies.

 

NEXT: D.C.'s Metro Is A Mess. Today the FBI Raided the Home of a Transit Board Member in Corruption Probe

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  1. So the story itself is pretty good but everything added to create political context is stupid? I think we could say that about quite a lot these days.

  2. “I’m not a historian,” DuVerney insisted. “I’m a storyteller.”

    By the way, that’s a shit copout. If you’re a storyteller, then tell a story, don’t rip something from yesterday’s headlines and twist the facts until they’re no longer recognizable. Then you’re just telling someone else’s story wrong. Make a new movie with similar characters and call it Gus Van Sant’s Last Days or something. That’s far more honest.

  3. Sharpton is mostly famous for his part in promoting a black teenager’s phony 1987 claim that she had been kidnapped and sexually abused by a cop and a prosecutor.

    Sharpton is “mostly famous” for a lot of things, least of which was his mob involvement.

    1. Plus lots of anti-Semitism and homophobia. But any Democrat serious about running for POTUS still has to kiss his ring…

      1. “The Ken Burns documentary on the subject was better.”

        Agree 100%

  4. Did the prosecution claim it got *all* the attackers? If not, how does finding an additional attacker – Reyes (the guy who left his DNA) – undermine the case? Because Reyes claims to have acted alone? At best, shouldn’t a new jury have looked at what Reyes said and decided if this particular witness was credible enough to create reasonable doubt?

    Seriously, am I missing something here?

    Or was New York City 1989 basically Scottsboro, AL in the 1930s?

    1. Are they really the only two choices?

      (1) The Five are somehow still guilty, despite the fact that nothing connects them to the crime other than inconsistent and heavily coached “confessions” achieved by brutal interrogations.

      OR

      (2) New York City of 1989 equals Scottsboro, AL of 1930

      I think the options run wider than that. Also, Ms DuVerney may slightly over-emphasize Trump the zeitgeist of the moment, but Mr Garvin definitely undersells it. Trump took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the Five to be executed. I’m not sure how that’s not part of the story…..

      1. “despite the fact that nothing connects them to the crime”

        Is that true? I haven’t seen many decent accounts that discuss this deeply. Some of the pro-conviction articles from the likes of Ann Coulter mention that there were grass and dirt stains inside some of the 5’s underwear, and that some of the uttered statements that helped convict them came long before the other confessions.

        At the very least, even the TV show seemed to acknowledge that they were traveling with a group of boys who were assaulting people to the point of unconsciousness, and the woman was similarly assaulted before being raped. Unfortunately, the rest of it seemed to imply they were completely innocent of anything.

        There are a lot of questions here and the hagiography of the boys is easily undermined, and its a shame it wasn’t addressed in a more wholesome manner.

        1. And to add my own thoughts: I think that forced confessions are absolutely real, and I expect that the boys were put through enough stress to cause such a thing.

        2. If the cops had had real evidence, why the need to coach and coerce confessions?

          Self-evidently, the cops had no case and had no interest in actually doing any real detective work.

          1. Agreed.

        3. The boys were definitely in the park and some were harassing park visitors. The punishment for that crime is NOT what they were incarcerated for–they were locked up for rape. A much more serious crime that required them to become registered sex offenders. The punishment must fit the crime – not lock up Black kids because you can.

          1. There’s no evidence those five were among those harassing park visitors.

            There were a lot of youths in the Park that night.

      2. Trump’s ad may have been part of the story, but it was a spit in the ocean compared to the frenzy stirred up by all the local newspapers, local radio and television, and even the national media, not to mention what local politicians of almost all stripes were saying. And as in the Duke lacrosse player case, the local media swallowed wholesale what the DA’s office and the police fed them and never questioned the inconsistencies and weaknesses in what they were being told. The media frenzy was worse than anything Trump had to say. His ad was a symptom, not a cause, of the frenzy.

        The Ken Burns documentary on the subject was better.

        1. “The Ken Burns documentary on the subject was better.”

          Agree 100%

    2. The only thing the Central Park 5 were innocent of is leaving a sock full of semen at the crime scene. Shoulda hung the lot of them.

      1. rape-culture feminist cant, arguing that it doesn’t matter who gets punished for sexual assault as long as somebody does.

        Birds of a feather.

        1. They beat the woman half to death.
          Their confessions were very consistent on those details.

          1. No, they weren’t.

            Quit lying.

  5. Yup, five little angels.

  6. There were no ‘brutal interrogations’. That ‘fact’ was added to the story later. By activists.

    As were the ‘timeline’ problems. These were created through repeated questioning and questioning by different investigations.

    The ‘Central Park 5’ were part of a group of teenagers that were rampaging through the park, and the jogger was not their only victim.

    When they were first brought in this was very clear.

    But a fog was created to suggest doubt. And eventually, it worked.

    The thing about this story is that everyone acts as if because they were found to have not raped the woman that means that they were innocent of the beating as well.

    But the one does not follow from the other.

    At the absolute least, they were accessories to the attack.

    1. IIRC, at least 2 of the “suspects” were confessing even before they were handcuffed and arrested.
      Police car pulls up with windows lowered: “hold it right there”

      2 of CP5: “we wuz there but we didn’t do no murder”

  7. I was a poor, white, teenaged girl living in upper Manhattan in the 1980s. The era of terror caused by unpunished anonymous violence, by mostly black and Latino youths, is hard to convey for someone who didn’t live it. The most common response to the Central Park jogger story was, “What did she *think* would happen, jogging in the park at that hour?”
    It doesn’t bother me one bit that those five spent decades in prison.

  8. I prefer platform like Tubitv and Hotstar over Netflix due to price and screen limitation on Netflix.

  9. ALERT: The Ann Coulter link in the article is to a Miami Herald disgraceful put down.

  10. Whenever an article like this is written, my Spidey sense tingles “racist.” First, Glenn—are you a historian or just an editorial writer? See that? I was an adult during this event, who lived in New York City. Almost 99% of the film rung true. There was no fascination with Trump–he was fascinated by them. He voluntarily took out a full-page ad and made the rounds on a variety of news/roundtable shows discussing the “savages.” Watch Ken Burns’ documentary on the matter; which was developed long before the settlement. A juror on the trial explained the tensions and pressure he was put under to render a guilty plea. Why can’t people admit, they were wrong? I had to. Proper detective work would have captured the rapist who sat under their noses. Proper detective work, would not have arrested those kids for rape (mischief or loitering – yes). The Sharpton reference, that was a cheap shot too — he was very front and center with Yusef’s mother to the point of annoyance, so the two seconds he is portrayed in the film was not worthy of your baiting. And Trump had equal time in the movie yet, you claimed something far more salacious–that’s why I think the article is a thinly-veiled racist slam. Tricia didn’t deserve what happened, and those kids didn’t deserve what happened to them. Let’s concentrate on education, equality, justice reform, and these issues would never become a movie.

    1. And here we have it.

      Someone trotting out to condemn the rapist and exonerate the mob that beat her.

      Because he was all by himself.

      And Trump was pissed because this was not the first incident of a mob of kids terrorizing people in the park.

      Why do we act like this couldn’t have happened when today, we have these rampaging kids posted the videos they took themselves of them beating up random people? When we have the video of kids like this snatching and torturing a kid on facebook?

      And again, THEY post it so all their friends who couldn’t make it for the mob violence will still get to watch.

      The Burns documentary was designed to cast doubt. To spread the idea that this was more racism than anything else.

      This new show is designed to spread TDS. Look at what racist Trump did.

    2. The idiot Trumpists that have infested Reason’s comment section aren’t going to really read what you wrote, but they should.

  11. “I’m not a historian, I’m a storyteller.” Too bad that’s the same approach Duvernay took with her actual documentary, 13th.

  12. The goal of the huge urban justice system when the public is outraged is to quickly quell the outrage by any means necessary.
    In the balance, railroading these accused helped calm the public.

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