As Trey Mangum wrote for Shadow And Act, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us—the four-episode Netflix series about the five young Black and brown teens who in 1989 were wrongfully convicted of rape, imprisoned for 7-13 years each and dubbed by the media ‘The Central Park Five’—demands your viewing.
As heartbreaking as the true story of Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana is, DuVernay has so evidently made this series with an outpouring of love, not just for these wronged men and the boys that they were, but also for Black people as a whole, that she makes watching the unbearable bearable.
In DuVernay’s masterful hands, the rage, the devastation that this story invokes don’t leave the audience empty, in the way that stories about Black folks that are intended for white consumption are wont to do. Instead, Black folks are so clearly the intended audience and our healing so enveloped in the mission of this series, that there is a burning desire, both during and after viewing it, to act, to demand change, to be changed. That’s the genius of the way DuVernay tells this story and an indication of the best kind of art: You can’t experience it and be the same person you were before.
But with DuVernay’s love comes James Baldwin’s famous charge, to make those you love conscious of what they can’t see.
When They See Us inspires a close reexamination not just of history, who we consider to be “criminals,” and the systems of oppression (from the “justice” system to the media) that conspired to steal these children’s lives. These men’s stories also demand self-examination for the ways that we willingly perpetuate and are complicit in our own oppression—not just for the Five in 1989 but also for each other in 2019.
In a series full of powerful scenes, there is one scene in particular that bears this radical message that we can’t afford to miss.
The scene is in the fourth and final episode, which focuses on 16-year-old Korey (played by Jharrel Jerome) and his 13-year torment in maximum security adult prisons throughout New York. DuVernay expands his story to include Marci (played by Isis King), Korey’s trans older sibling. In solitary confinement, as Korey escapes into his memories, he recalls his older sibling always looking out for him and taking care of him, until their mother (played by Niecy Nash) throws Marci out of their home for dressing in women’s clothing and insisting on being called Marci instead of Norman. Korey is remembering that day—possibly the last day he ever saw Marci—because a chaplain is telling him that Marci has been murdered. Unsafe at home and in the streets, Marci’s life was cut short, most likely for being a Black trans woman in a transphobic, anti-Black, misogynistic world.
In a series about the grave miscarriage of justice against Antron, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Raymond, DuVernay did not have to include the story of Marci. But she did. Through Korey and Marci’s tears and composer Kris Bowers’ heart-rending score as Marci leaves her little brother behind, DuVernay juxtaposes the life and horrific murder of Marci as a trans person—who was unsafe at home and in her Black community—alongside the horror that Korey is still surviving, due to the criminal justice system. As our hearts break for Korey, they also break for Marci, both victims of outrageous injustice and dehumanization.
It’s in this scene that another layer of meaning to the series title When They See Us is revealed. Yes, in our white supremacist world, agents of white supremacy don’t see children, or human beings deserving of compassion and care when they see Black people. But in that scene, DuVernay is also turning the lens on us and asking us to examine ourselves as a Black community. Who did this young, stressed out, single mother see when she looked at her gender non-conforming child? Who do cisgender, heterosexual Black people see when they look at fellow Black people who are trans, who are queer, who don’t conform to socially constructed gender norms and sexual orientations? Are we the ominous “they” to those of our Black siblings who are less privileged and more oppressed? These should not be radical questions.
But this month alone, Donald Trump rolled back civil rights protections for trans people, leaving them even more vulnerable to discrimination in medical care, housing and employment. That comes on the heels of three Black trans women being murdered in the same week, in different parts of the country: Michelle “Tamika” Washington, Muhlaysia Booker and Claire Legato. Just like Marci and these three women, Black trans women are not safe in our community or in the world in 2019. How, then, should anyone feel safe?
Yusef’s mother, Sharonne Salaam, was an educated woman, armed with enough knowledge to stop the NYPD from coercing her 15-year-old son into a taped or written confession to a crime he didn’t commit. That did not stop the wheel of the American injustice system from crushing her son along with the other boys who weren’t as privileged as Yusef was in that moment. Privilege will not save us, whether it be class, complexion, beauty, physical ability or our ability to conform to societal norms for gender expression and sexual orientation. In this white supremacist, capitalist, ableist, cisheteropatriarchy, we can all be crushed by the wheel. A crucial part of breaking the wheel requires divesting from the systems of oppression that we also perpetuate in our own community—chief among them: transphobia, queerphobia and misogyny. There is no liberation for Black people until all Black lives matter and all Black people are free.
When the end credits roll on this final episode of the series and Nipsey Hussle’s song
“Picture Me Rollin'” begins to play, it’s not just a sweet homage from DuVernay to her friend, Neighborhood Nip, in the wake of his murder. It’s an offering of the medicine of meditation, of the power of our imagination: to picture the Exonerated Five healed and whole and at peace; to envision Marci and the millions of Marcis all over the world, healed and whole and at peace. Imagine ourselves healed and whole and at peace. Then get busy making that world a reality.
The song signifies the call to action which has come to represent Hussle’s life and legacy: “The marathon continues.” DuVernay has done for us what needed to be done. She’s crafted for us a radical awakening, arming us with the truth of our history and ourselves. Now, the baton is in our hands. And shame on us if we remain the same.
Brooke Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act.
Photo credit: Netflix