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Review: When They See Us (2019)

When They See Us (2019)

Directed by: Ava DuVernay

Premise: In 1989, five African American teenagers were arrested and wrongly convicted of assaulting a white female jogger in New York City’s Central Park. When They See Us tells the story of the young men from the evening of the assault through their trial and conviction and their eventual exoneration as adults.

What Works: The story of the Central Park Five has previously been told in Ken and Sarah Burns’ 2012 documentary. The 2019 drama When They See Us also tells this story and does so in a way that is not redundant with the documentary. Instead, the two films are a good example of what drama and documentary are uniquely suited to do. The documentary is primarily an intellectual exercise and it lays out the facts and context of the case and does that very well. When They See Us also serves an informative purpose but drama is about emotion and empathy. Stories are about characters who have desires and conflicts. Successful stories make the audience care about whatever it is the characters want to achieve and skillful storytelling inevitably leads us to recognize the humanity of the characters no matter how removed they may be from our own experience. When They See Us is a drama about five teenagers who were caught up in events much bigger than they were and how their identities and futures were hijacked by forces that were beyond their control. The portrait of these boys is nuanced. The film does not suggest that they were angels but rather typical teenagers with their own flaws; it is in those flaws and quirks that humanity resides and the filmmakers demand that we see these boys as full people. When They See Us is shot in a way that puts us in the boys’ headspace. In many scenes the camera is placed in a way that frames the action from the boys’ perspective and we understand events through their point of view and grasp the subtext of their scenes and how authorities were able to coerce false confessions from them. But just as the film gets us to empathize with these young men it also makes us reexamine the ways in which the outside world looks at these African American boys. As the very title of When They See Us suggests, the film is about the way the legal system and mainstream culture regards young African American men and the presumption of guilt that is foisted upon them. When They See Us is also about the justice system. It takes us through the process of transitioning from a free citizen to an incarcerated criminal and what that process does to the imprisoned but also what it does to their families. As part of that journey, When They See Us dramatizes the coercive interrogation techniques, tainted reasoning, and the public pressure that poisoned the Central Park Five investigation and turned these boys’ lives upside down.

What Doesn’t: There is a big leap of time in When They See Us. After the boys have been incarcerated, the story skips ahead to their adult years. The leap forward is jarring and the film misses some opportunities to dramatize what it means to grow up in the prison system. But it makes narrative sense to get to the next major event in their lives and the juxtaposition of these boys with their adult selves is effective in its own way.  

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: When They See Us is a powerful example of drama as a way of fostering empathy. The film is a provocative political piece but it is most effective in the way it makes the audience reconcile the humanity of these characters with the inhumanity with which they were viewed and treated by society, making us reevaluate our own assumptions and reactions.

Episode: #803 (June 7, 2020)