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.