When They See Us is based on a true story of the systemic oppression of racial minorities by the American judicial system. The Netflix Original miniseries follows five innocent boys as they are charged and sentenced for a crime they did not commit. Ava DuVernay co-wrote and directed the series based on the 1989 events pertaining to the assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park. Despite the abolition of slavery and segregation, and the strides made to overcome those events, black individuals in the United States continue to face systemic discrimination in their daily lives. When They See Us is a prominent example of the ways in which people of colour are unjustly treated.
A large group of black and Hispanic boys, between the ages of 14-16, went out into the streets of Harlem to go “wildin.” While some people played music and danced their way through the streets, others harassed cyclists and joggers, beating them until some were hospitalized. Although they had not participated in the violence, in the group were the boys that would become the infamous Central Park Five: Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), and Yusuf Salaam (Ethan Herisse). Most of the boys were arrested by police and stayed the night at the station while they awaited their parents’ arrival. However, the head of the precinct, a conniving woman by the name of Linda Fairnstein (Felicity Huffman) decided to link the boys to a sexual assault that occurred earlier that night. She stretched the course of events to fit her agenda and charged the boys with a crime they did not commit. The five young men had not met one another prior to the charges raised against them. Each boy was interrogated, without the presence of an attorney or a parent in most cases. They were severely beaten and forced to endure over 18 hours of interrogation without food or water. The detectives promised each boy the chance to go home after providing the detectives with the information they required. As a result, the boys falsely confessed to the rape and incriminated others with them.
The young men were informed of the rape and the details of the assault against the female jogger, details to be used in the filmed testimony the detectives forced them to give. Despite their adamant protests that they had nothing to do with her misfortune, the detectives coerced the boys into giving fabricated testimonies implicating each other, despite not even knowing one another. Due to there being no DNA remnants from the boys found at the crime scene or the presence of a murder weapon, the video confessions and accusations made played a crucial role in the conviction of the Central Park Five. It was the judge that allowed those confessions into the trial despite their brazen illegitimacy.
Four of the boys were sent to juvenile detention centers, and one, Korey Wise, who was 16 years old at the time, sent to an adult facility. Many advocates protested outside of the courtrooms, seeing the racial discrimination and coercion that led to the boys being charged in the first place. Despite their passionate efforts, the men served out their sentences before their true innocence was discovered.
In 2002, the true assailant was convicted. He confessed to his crimes and with the aid of DNA testing, it was easy to prove that he was indeed the actual perpetrator of the crime. He requested that the conviction against the Central Park Five be vacated, as if there was no trial at all. Unfortunately for the men, they had already served their sentences and been traumatized by the injustice they faced.
The men sued the DA’s office in 2003 and finally received their settlement in 2014. However, no monetary gain could compensate for a childhood robbed of its innocence; of justice torn apart to continue the baseless prosecution of people of colour. The law decrees everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but as the Central Park Five has demonstrated, there are systemic biases that prevent this principle from always being afforded to people of colour.