When You See Them, You Will Grieve

Blog by Associate Colette Parker

I did something this weekend that I really didn’t want to do.

I watched the Ava DuVernay-directed When They See Us, the four-part mini-series streaming on Netflix that tells the story of the Exonerated Five.

I hesitated to view it because I knew it was going to be difficult to watch. I knew it would trigger the trauma of strategic and systemic racism – a system that devalues black and brown lives (meaning it would take me on a very rough emotional roller coaster ride).

I knew the story and its outcome: five black and Hispanic teens (ages 14 to 16), labeled the Central Park Five, were arrested, interrogated, tried and convicted of brutally raping a 28-year-old white female jogger, despite the fact that DNA evidence wasn’t a match for any of them. Twelve years later (when all but two of the five were out of prison), a convicted rapist and murderer (whose DNA was a match) confessed to the crime.  The five were exonerated and eventually received a $41 million settlement and have found life after incarceration.

But I convinced myself to watch it – even though I knew it would cause me to be an emotional wreck –because I knew it was an opportunity to hear the story from the perspective of the five – all now men in their 40s.

I made the decision after reading articles and seeing interviews of the five and experiencing their words describing the mini-series as a way to convey their “truth”; as a “sacrifice” to change the culture by becoming engaged; as a “platform” to start the conversation to prevent another Central Park Five; as a means to “effect change”; as a vehicle for telling their stories.

It became very clear to me that these men wanted and needed to be heard. I was compelled to oblige, knowing that my discomfort couldn’t possibly compare to their lived pain and trauma. So, I braced myself – still, their pain and trauma were transferable. I fully understand why a grief counselor was on the set while filming.

Ava DuVernay has said her goal in directing the series was “to humanize boys, now men, who are widely regarded as criminals” and “to invite the audience to re-interrogate everyone that they define as a criminal … I’m asking the question to everyone, ‘What do you see when you see black boys’?”

From my vantage point, black and brown boys continue to be seen as deviant in our culture. Isn’t it time for that practice to end?  Tens of thousands of innocent people continue to be incarcerated for years and decades for crimes they did not commit. Isn’t it time for that to end too?

When They See Us is the Exonerated Five telling their story. And as painful as it is to hear, I think they should be heard. They paid a terrible price, and I think we owe it to them to listen.

I hope you accept Ava DuVernay’s invitation to question who you define as a criminal and to answer the question: What do you see when you see black and brown boys?


Posted in Associate Blog

12 responses to “When You See Them, You Will Grieve

  1. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and honesty. I must admit, I have not been able to bring myself to watch it quite yet. I have a son who is 30 years old and can seem to look intimidating to those who do not know him. I just hits too close to home.

  2. Thank you, Collette, for inviting us to grow in our understanding of the systemic racism and our awareness of the value of each life.

  3. Thank you, Colette for your courage and honesty in reporting the story of these young boys and the injustice
    they experienced. It brought Hope to me to learn their response brought new life to them in spite of the years in
    I couldn’t agree with you more of how we need to stop
    calling brown and black boys criminals. They are children of
    a loving God and deserve our respect and reverence.

  4. Thanks, Colette. I haven’t seen
    “When They See Us”yet. I have seen their interviews. So much injustice for years!!!

    No amount of money can provide them the lost years of their lives.

  5. Thank you, Colette. As you know, we have been studying racism the last few years. When I watched the trailer and tried to watch the Oprah Show it stopped at 23 minutes. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get it back. It finally worked and now I definitely have to see the series on Netflix. It is so powerful and the situation was so wrong everyone should see it. I’m very glad it went viral. Now it is time to act.

  6. Colette,
    Just heard about this film from a nephew, and it sounds amazing. I will take your advice and watch it.

  7. Thank you, Colette for sharing this. My husband and I watched the first episodes and will watch the last this week. You’re right. It’s very disturbing but needs to be heard. Although white, we have an African American granddaughter who asked her mother (also white) if she would get the same sentence that her cousin got (of writing a letter to a store owner) after she was found “high.” Her answer was, “You know, I don’t know but probably not.” How sad and being in my late 60’s I thought things would have changed by now. I continue to pray for understanding and acceptance. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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