BY SUBHASH K. JHA
Film: “When They See Us” on Netflix; Director: Ava DuVernay; Rating: *****(5 stars)
Hands-down, the heart-stopping reality check in the four-part series is the best thing to have happened to live streaming…ever. “When They See Us”, about five black boys from Harlem who were (wrongly) arrested for the rape and brutal attack on a young white woman in Central Park New York in 1989, is much more than a terrifying, haunting treatise on the travesty of justice.
It is a mirror of a society where underdogs will remain that way. Nothing changes at the bottom. Portraying the terror and the unplanned fortitude of the five young teenagers, some of whom didn’t know what rape meant, as victims of the nastiest possible misuse of power, the director could comfortably have milked the situation for melodramatic sympathy.
This monument of a series is much more than a comfort blanket meant to make “us” feel safe as “they” suffer. Quite the opposite, the series draws us so tightly close to the characters, their grief, their suffering and their suffering family, that we are left with no option but to stare in the face of an injustice that transcends race and class. We hang the underprivileged by a tree. They name and shame convicted criminals in classrooms and churches.
This could happen to any of us. It happened to actor-musician Karan Oberoi just the other day. So are we really leaving in a more just society than the one that existed 30 to 40 years ago?
The question haunts me with nagging persistence ever since I watched what happened to those five unfortunate boys — 4 black and 1 Hispanic, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The narrative is as stark, brutal and punishing as the circumstances that the five boys (identified as the Central Park 5 in the media that covered the gruesome case) find themselves plunged into.
The looming greatness of “When They See Us” lies not only in its subject matter (the worst travesty of justice that the US has witnessed) but also in the way director Ava DuVernay (who, hard as it may be to believe, directed the Disney disaster “A Wrinkle In Time”) makes us, the audience, a participant in the indescribable agony and grief of the accused and their family.
This is not only a docu-drama on misfired justice, but on how it impacts the family of the accused and leaves them scarred for life. The mothers, specially, are shown to be the accused’s primary source of strength. The fathers are weaker more vulnerable.
The first episode shows the boys being rounded up and brutally interrogated by the police who are pressurised by the High Command for heads to roll. The bewilderment and shock of the boys and their family is heart-shattering. The second episode shows the trial and the error (if you will) and the way the boys are made to lie in court with the promise of going back home. Because, really, all the boys want is to go home.
The third episode, my favourite, shows four of the boys’ attempts to rehabilitate themselves in a society that has branded them sexual offenders and hardened criminals.
The performances by the young and the old are exceptional and it would be…errr…criminal to single out any one actor, why add to the mountainous injustice? While every moment of the series is precious some moments surpass every definition of excellence. My favourite sequence is the one where one of the incarcerated boys returns home and reconciles with his dying father who had left the boy and his mother when the crisis happened. If you don’t normally weep watching films, then this one might shock you.
The fourth episode showing the incarceration and the brutal violence meted out to the only adult Corey (Jharrel Jerome, whom I am naming as he has more footage than the others) among the five accused is toughest to watch. Many times I was tempted to abandon the story. But I am afraid, turning away from the painful shameful truth is not an option. It’s the worst injustice you can do to a series that “celebrates” injustice in all ironic and brutally tragic shades.
If you want to watch only one series this year, “When They See Us” is the one to see. But be warned, it will scar you for life. Also, the profusion of characters in their young and older avatars, gets confusing to identify. And though the director helpfully provides fleeting glimpses of the younger version of the protagonists while showing them as older, it is difficult for us to keep track of who’s who.
Ironically, that’s what the miscarriage of justice is all about. The accused become a faceless mass.