Tonight, in one sitting and with the comfort of two rum and cokes, I watched When They See Us on Netflix.
I’d been dreading it but knew I had to watch it. It seemed to me to be a moral responsibility, to not just read about the exoneration of the “Central Park Five” in the newspaper but to sit there and have what I knew would be layers of injustice pile up before my eyes.
I wasn’t astonished by it. I think there are many people in prison who were wrongly convicted largely because of racial bias in the legal system. I don’t think that’s rare; this case was rare, though, for the fear it struck among women everywhere. Wilding. That was the term that was used. The “Central Park Five” – all young teenage boys – were accused of wilding. It was terrifying. They were just boys but they were black boys and so people accepted the wilding label as if it made all the sense in the world. Of course, that’s what black boys do. They go wilding. I remember at the time, we bought that. Everybody bought that. Why.
The film connects us to the five boys in deep, personal ways. We get to know them as regular teenagers, then terrified boys, and then incarcerated people and never once are the characters overdrawn and nothing seems to have been exaggerated for effect. The truth was bad enough without embellishment. And their mothers. We get to know their steadfast, flawed, heartbroken mothers. And their fathers, who sometimes had to disappear to cope with their own grief and helplessness. They were loved boys and the love lasted.
What is missing from the film and reality as well, I suppose, is retribution. Once the actual rapist confesses and all five are exonerated, there are brief scenes where the prosecutor confronts the cop who extracted their confessions and the district attorney who, essentially, constructed a scenario whereby the boys were guilty while ignoring vast evidence to the contrary. I wanted to see her ruined, humiliated, anguished, and repentant. But she wasn’t. Maybe that will come in a sequel.
The racism in the film is profound and will stun a lot of people. But I was not stunned. I was ashamed, though.