Seen and Heard in When They See Us

Kate Doyle Griffiths

In Netflix’s new series on the falsely convicted Central Park Five, the world that whiteness wants is on full display.

I binged the Netflix miniseries When They See Us, which details the case of the Central Park Five, fully intending to take it slow, one episode at a time. It is well done in ways I didn’t expect and totally devastating as a whole.

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Social media tells me that many of my friends are watching it with their teenagers and children, treating it as a necessary lesson in why parents of children—especially black children—tell them not to speak to police for any reason, and issue all kinds of warnings about regular teenage associations and behavior they must exert extreme caution about, as a matter of survival.

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Anyone who doesn’t understand how false confessions come to be, or how prosecutorial deals can quickly undermine the civil rights of even the most vigilant and innocent among us, needs to watch this film. It makes it clear that protecting ourselves and our kids is a collective project and it can’t work any other way.

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The series adeptly demonstrates how prisons and police are a wellspring of collective trauma for black families and black people generally; racist injustice is woven into every aspect of the process of investigation, prosecution, and sentencing. The police lie, on purpose. They coerce lies from witnesses-turned-suspects. They turn being a “good kid” with something to lose—being older or younger, with or without parental protection, richer or poorer, more or less dark-skinned—against the young friends and acquaintances of the accused. They turn them against each other expertly, and turn their fear against the facts.

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The stories of all five defendants are presented compellingly. Each is, in its own right, tragic. You get a very realistic sense of how even given parents and kids doing exactly the right thing, having good lawyers and no serious evidence against them is not enough to protect them from the personal racism of police prosecutors and celebrity politicians, or from the political momentum behind a then-nationwide push to lock up black teens, to get them out of public space and out of the way of wealthy white people and overweening real-estate interests.

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The drama focuses on defendant and convict Korey Wise, sixteen at the time of his interrogation, showing that he was vulnerable in part because of his learning disability, which is well captured in the film. But he’s not treated as powerless; his bravery as a teen in the face of adult prison and long stints in solitary is inspiring and crushing all at once.

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If not for his principled refusal to confess to a crime he didn’t commit in exchange for parole— weighing the dehumanization of his treatment against the dehumanization of giving in—the convictions of all five defendants would likely still stand.

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Each of the actors portraying parents of the accused captures something profound about the guilt and responsibility experienced by people doing their best in a situation so beyond their control that even merely considering it breaks your soul. Michael K. Williams’ expression of raw fear as Bobby McCray, father of accused Anton McCray— fear which motivates him to compel his child to confess — gives the film its historical weight and its felt sense of generational trauma. His character illuminates anti-blackness as something painfully defining in people’s lives and communities. The mothers in the film get at what it means for individual people to bear an impossible collective burden in addition to specific responsibility for their own kids. Isis King, who plays Korey Wise’s sister, Marci, exemplifies why the demand for trans actors to play trans characters goes beyond representation and employment. In a brief appearance, she delivers the weight of experience of many black trans women who have come before and since.

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The “seeing” at stake in When They See Us is clearly not about a lack of intimacy or familiarity, feeling seen, but about racist attention and attack. What’s implied is the alternative of remaining unseen, underground and under the radar, out of the public eye, which seems, in the end, precisely the point.

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Felicity Huffman, famous most recentIy for buying SAT scores for her daughter, inhabits the role of Becky-as-Prosecutor with real aplomb, playing Linda Fairstein. The series captures how Fairstein and Trisha Meili, in the trial and beyond, pitted the safety of white women in public space against the social existence of working-class black boys.

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It’s striking that the crime against Meili is both real (she’s beaten to near death, and lives with life-altering disability, and there’s no question she was raped, nor does she have even a chance to lie about this) and totally obscure to her: as with the prosecutors, the public of the time, and later viewers of the series, she’s left to fill in the gaps using either the racist narrative invented by cops or the contrary lived experience of the innocent accused. What’s not seen is what matters.
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It’s notable, too, that both Meili and Fairstein would go on to shatter glass ceilings with careers not just as prosectors and investment bankers but as public feminists of a carceral variety, representing victims’ rights to legal justice but also other kinds of support.

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Huffman precisely captures how this concern for (white) rape victims is mobilized against the accused, denying them any chance of exculpation. She comes across as a woman of strong emotion and realistic rage about the many unavenged and unrecognized rape victims, but unconflicted about sacrificing the black teenage boys in their name. Fairstein and the cops are not isolated white naifs, but familiar enough with New York City’s black, Latino, working-class, and queer public life to use it against the defendants individually and collectively.

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Even once Matias Reyes confesses, and his DNA confirms his guilt, Meili insists that this does not exonerate the Five and that Reyes is just an additional rapist rather than an alternative perpetrator. Aware that she does not and cannot know the truth, she still sides with corrupt prosecutors because they treated her with “respect,” never mind the lack of respect accorded the imprisoned boys, now men.

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Behind all this, we get a taste of the stresses these processes place on black women and in particular black trans women. While Korey Wise is in solitary confinement, Marci, his transgender sister, is murdered after being denied the protection of their mother.

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Everywhere, injustice is doubled, as wrong begets wrong. The wrongs perpetrated against the five accused, against the victim, and, presumably, against the subsequent victims of the real rapist, are never rectified, a failure which is the consequence not only of individual racism but also of a city determined to make the streets safe only for capital accumulation not humans.

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When They See Us asks what it means to be seen and in what ways. The active foundation of the film in black cis and trans women’s true-to-life stories transforms what might have otherwise been a stale, flat narrative, highlighting racist proceduralism, personal white racism, and the role of white feminism in reinforcing racist narratives.

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On the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, in Pride month, this couldn’t be a more urgent injunction or a more radical reframing. This point of the film is to tell the truth, but also to push back on an agenda of social hygiene that aims to sanitize public space for the wealthy, the elite, and investors.

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The answer to When They See Us isn’t to remain unseen or to hide when seen wrongly or with bad intention. It’s to see ourselves, in each other, in our past and present.