featured image: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60915594
I usually keep it light, fun, and journey focused here on my blog but when something tugs at your spirit you’ve got to abide, right?
It’s not often that I watch something and have a physical reaction to it. Not often that I become physically uncomfortable, unable to stay still, and fraught with worry and filled with rage on behalf of people I do not know. But while watching Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us on Netflix, I experienced all these things. And seeing it all unfold against the backdrop of New York City, the city that birthed and raised me, was beyond disconcerting.
This documentary about the infamous case of the “Central Park Five” tells the horror of the wrongful conviction of five young black teenage males in a 1980’s rape case. It tore at my soul. Its multi-faceted re-telling of this ordeal allowed me to walk in this journey is a personal way. This film made me sit and spend intimate time with all of the people involved for two hundred and ninety-six minutes. I completely spent by the end– terrified by how quickly something as mundane as hanging out with friends, or sending your son to play with his friends, or taking a jog through a city park, could become life-altering experiences.
When They See Us caused me to see myself in:
1. The Boys– They were just that. Boys. Not men. Not thugs. Not criminals. Just boys (the youngest was fourteen) excited to hang out and have a fun night of typical teenage freedom. In them, I see my son, who’s twelve now. He will probably spend time in that very park or one like it. Is it possible for someone to mistake the intelligent, carefree, and fun loving boy that I’m raising as a suspect in a horrible crime? Will he fit the description and be torn from me? Years stolen from his life for being in the “wrong place at the wrong time”.
2. The Parents– All hardworking people who had to turn their sons over to police or leave their sons in police custody, not because they didn’t care but because of economic pressures. It’s a luxury to be able to take days off work to accompany your child through the legal process. A luxury some of us can afford. It’s a luxury to be able to bail your child out of jail for a crime they did not commit. To not even have the courtesy of being notified by police that your child is in their custody in the first place. My son walks the two blocks from his school to our apartment on his own each day. Could he be stopped and taken away from me..and no one tells me? Will I have to search for my baby and find him only after he’s suffered hours of interrogation and physical abuse? The thought of it takes the breath from my lungs.
3. The System– These big wheels of justice churn so mightly sometimes that they leave the innocent broke until their spokes. In a search for justice, will I as a juror settle for good enough and not strive for sure when I sit on a jury and hear a case like this one? Will my prejudice or the prejudice of my peers allow us to believe story as a substitute for facts…for evidence?
This docudrama is more than a lot of people in the black community can take. It strikes so deep and hurts so near. But I’m grateful to Ava for giving us this body of work and telling this horror story. It’s required viewing for all parents of teens, especially minority children. It’s a clear and unabashed map of what goes wrong so often for Black boys and men in our legal system. It allows us to stop asking ‘what happened?’. We have the answers. If we analyze the blueprint and study the forks in the road we can make sure the tortured path is never followed again.
I will rewind the tapes and study the plays with my son. Our justice system needs to do the same. We need to work on this at a hurried pace. Our mistakes can not cost another young man his life. We deserve better.
“When They See Us” is streaming on Netflix now. Watch the trailer here: