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?