Original Title: When They See Us
Country: United States
Creator: Ava DuVernay
Genre: Biography, Drama
Hello, there! I’m dos Santos, welcome to Ulven Reviews. Where you’ll find reviews of movies and series from all over the world and from all eras.
Today’s Series is the American mini-series When They See Us, created by Ava DuVernay. It portrays the notorious case of five teenagers wrongfully convicted of a brutal rape and assault.
When They See Us
The boys are: Anton McCray (played by Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Kevin Richardson (played by Asante Blackk and Justin Cunningham), Yusef Salaam (played by Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk), Raymond Santana (played by Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares) and Korey Wise (played by Jharrel Jerome, as teenager and adult).
The mini-series have four episodes, each one with one phase of the case.
The first episode introduces us to the characters as kids, shows the night in which the crime occurred, and how Linda Fairstein colluded with the police and prosecutors to frame the boys.
The second episode portrays their trials and subsequent convictions. In the third episode, we have the release of the four boys who were under-16 at the time of the arrested and their struggles after many years of incarceration.
The fourth and last episode focuses on Korey Wise, who was 16 during the arrest and was sent to the adult jail. Also their exoneration after many years of injustice.
At first, I thought of telling some anecdotal cases before showing the statistics, however, the one portrayed in the mini-series, already is a perfect example of a miscarry of justice. So, let’s go straight to facts.
According to John Grisham, in an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times, the rate of wrongful convictions in the U.S is around 2% to 10%, meaning 46,000 to 230,000 innocents in jail. The main reasons pointed are bad police work, prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, faulty eyewitness identification, jailhouse snitches, bad lawyering, sleeping judges, and junk science.
A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that at least 4.1% of the individuals sentenced to death are actually innocent. Something I think it’s important to add is that, so far as I know, death still irreversible.
In an article by Robert Kolker for The Marshall Project (published in partnership with WIRED), it’s explained the evolution of the interrogation tactics used by the various police detectives in the US. I will try to summarize it, and if you want to read it in full detail, the link will be in the description box below.
Before the decade of 1930, torture was the interrogation technique, until it was abolished by the Supreme Court in 1936. In the next two decades, a detective called John E. Reid made his name as an interrogator in more than 300 murder cases.
In the decade of 1960, Reid and the Northwestern University law professor, Fred Inbau, formalized the technique in “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions”. This technique became almost a norm for the police force, even for those without formal training in this specific method.
The Reid Technique is known in popular culture, with the small interrogation room, where investigators pressure the suspect until they get admission. In real life, the detectives use deceiving and psychological torture in the extracting of the confession.
The creators of such a method claimed that the investigators could identify a lie with 85 percent of accuracy, a claim with no evidence to back it up. However, in 1987, the forensic psychologist Günter Köhnken conducted a study that found that the detectives could not identify lies better than the average person.
I watch a lot of true-crime documentaries and tv-shows, and the common belief is that an innocent person would not confess to something they haven’t done. However, that’s incorrect, and there are many studies about false memories and false confessions.
According to The Innocence Project, from 367 cases exonerated by DNA evidence, 28% involved false confession, and 49% of these false confessions were made by individuals 21 years-old or younger.
According to The National Registry of Exonerations, from 1989 to 04 of May 2020, 2,604 individuals were exonerated after wrongful convictions. False confessions and official misconducts are among the top contributing factors for the convictions.
2,604 is just the current number of exonerees since 1989. Now, think about how many more innocent people are incarcerated right now because of people with bad intentions, like the one we will talk about next.
She looks like any rich granny, but she’s actually an awful human being and a hypocrite. She had a fundamental role in framing the five boys, and even after the lie was discovered and the conviction vacated, she kept saying they were guilty.
She pretended to care about sexual assault victims, her biography shows the opposite. She seemed more concerned about incriminating minorities and protecting powerful white men than anything else, the victims were nothing but a tool.
In 2012 Fairstein was involved in trying to silence one of the victims of Harvey Weinstein. The same year, she helped the District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr with the decision not to charge Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a French politician with several accusations of sexual misconduct.
P.S.: She was involved in the dropping of one case against Strauss-Kahn, not all of them.
From the boys’ conviction until the convictions were vacated in 2002, Fairstein published five books, making her name as a novel author, and probably stuffing her pockets. After the release of When They See Us, she was dropped by her publisher, but still, a small price to pay, compared to what she did to the Five, and who knows how many more innocents.
I liked the way the story was told and how it was divided into the episodes. It was neat and well-organized, yet it keeps us emotionally engaged in the show and has maintained all the artistic qualities.
The whole show is intense since the beginning, and after watching the first episode, I was so disgusted that I had to stop for around two days. Then I search a little about the real case to feel comfortable enough to get back to it.
It’s natural for most people to have some kind of emotional reaction to injustice and that’s one of the reasons that made this series so emotionally effective. Unless you are a disgusting piece of garbage without a sense of humanity, like Linda Fairstein.
The series version of Linda Fairstein (played by Felicity Huffman) constantly calls the boys animals, and that’s very telling. Her character, and probably the real person as well, don’t feel like the boys are human beings, like the colonizers who discussed if the African and Indigenous peoples had souls.
Another example of person without empathy for others is Donald Trump. Trump’s full-page ad asking for the death penalty, was a notorious event in the case, and in the series, it illustrates how sections of the media ratified the guilty verdict even before the trial.
The technical aspects of the series are flawless. The soundtrack is decent and well-fitting. The cinematography is beautiful, with great lighting and colors, and so on. However, even near perfection, these aspects are not the best thing of the series.
The most outstanding point of the series is the acting, especially the five boys when young. They’re perfect, very believable during the interrogation, and bullying by the police until they confess. It’s visible their drastic transformation from happiness into desperation.
From the adult five, my favorite one is Freddy Miyares as Raymond Santana. I felt as his story was the most compelling and the one with more development, even with all the creative licenses.
His father, played by John Leguizamo, was also great. Leguizamo surprised me in adult life because I knew him since I was a kid from 1997’s The Pest. However, everything I watched from him recently, he was excellent, including his stand-up Latin History for Morons.
Vera Farmiga plays Elizabeth Lederer, the prosecutor that believe is making the right choice prosecuting the boys, even though sometimes hesitant about the evidence. As usual, she does terrific with this character, making evident the doubts about the case.
Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays Anton McCray’s father, is an actor I love. One of the most underrated actors I know, especially when it comes to movies. When he played Omar Little, in The Wire, he showed how great he is, and in When They See Us he is great again. The only problem is the weird wig he is wearing in the early episodes.
It’s impossible to mention everyone, but among other actors and actresses that gave solid performances and worth mentioning are Kylie Bunbury, Niecy Nash, and Joshua Jackson.
Jharrel Jerome, as Korey Wise, is the heart and soul of the series. With his acting, he evoked so much feeling, to an absurd level. The toughest moment, to me, is when he is told about his sister’s death.
The last episode felt like a punch in the stomach, extremely emotional. The mastery of this episode is thanks to Jharrel Jerome’s acting and, again, the hand and mind of Ava DuVernay, who guided the series to perfection.
When They See Us is nearly perfect, and for the emotional reaction it evoked me, I’ll give it 10 Moons.
After all of this, all it’s left to do in the video is to praise the five boys, now grown men, who lost most of their youth. Kevin Richardson, Anton McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana.
Their story, their efforts, and their tenacity should be enough to stop more injustices like this of happening. Unfortunately, we know that it won’t, but we must be aware and vigilant.